Thomas Cup victory has unleashed a storm that will not subside. And there is an underlying pattern to the whole process. The pattern needs to be understood and appreciated
Historic is one of the most frequently abused words these days. But, this is indeed historic. There have been glorious moments in Indian sports before this. Our hockey team gave us identity and helped us find our feet on the global stage in the initial years of independence when it won Olympics gold medals with regularity. Our cricket team first challenged the world order by winning the world cup in 1983 and then emerged as an economic powerhouse after two victories under MS Dhoni in the 2007 Twenty 20 World Cup and 2011 World Cup. We have had our share of moments in the Olympics when Abhinav Bindra won an individual gold medal in shooting and Neeraj Chopra in the javelin. Vishwanathan Anand has been our global superstar in chess. But, this is truly unprecedented. This looks unreal and still difficult to be believed. Even ten days back, if someone had said that India would be Thomas Cup 2022 champion, defeating the established badminton powers like Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand, they would have been mocked and ridiculed. But this is surreal. There comes a time in nations sporting history when it shakes the established world order and catapults itself as a severe claimant in a particular sport. There are moments in history when a nation shows early but definitive signs of emergence as a future global sports power. It’s one of such rare moments in Indian Sports.
We are a cricket-obsessed nation. There is nothing wrong with that for every major nation that is obsessed with one sport or the other. When the entire country was engrossed with the drama, suspense and hysteria of the Indian Premier League and its household names, Kidambi Srikanth, Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty, Lakshya Sen, and HS Prannoy did the unthinkable in one of the most competitive global sports. Though most of the country’s sports intelligentsia has still to come to terms with the new reality or acknowledge the same in so many words, a dozen players in Bangkok and their coaches there and in India though, believed in themselves throughout. While others are still struggling to find the right words to describe this momentous feat, deep down in their conscience, they were confident that they could scale this ultimate summit. This was a date with destiny, meticulously envisioned and executed by countries most underrated and least talked about but hugely talented sportspersons- the men’s badminton players.
The idea is not to undermine any sports. Instead, the effort should be to put the scale and size of their achievements in true perspective. As per a conservative estimate, badminton is the second most participatory global sport after soccer. And, amongst racquet sports, it’s considered the fastest. The average rally in badminton is over 10 hits. When we compare this to tennis, it has got three hits on average. The intent is not to belittle any other trophies or titles. Rather, the focus is on helping to understand the true worth of this particular title. Sports are more than individual excellence. Nothing epitomises this more than Thomas Cup. The tournament is about the collective joy gleaned from a team’s success when different individuals offer varied skills and win together for the larger cause as nation representatives. This was in full display in Bangkok- when our Men badminton team was on the mission.
Besides winning its maiden title in the tournament’s history, India stunned fancied opponents Malaysia and Denmark and defeated 14-time champion Indonesia in the summit clash. 20-year-old Lakshya Sen, the seasoned Kidambi Srikanth, the combative HS Prannoy and the doubles team of Chirag Shetty and Satwiksairaj Rankireddy, the Indian team had the wherewithal and belief that they could win the title. This was evident throughout the tournament. This was in ample display when it mattered most. In the final, both Lakshya and doubles lost the opening games. And yet, like seasoned professionals, they dug deep to defeat the Indonesians. Once a 2-0 lead was secured, with remarkable fluency, former world number one Srikanth got past Jonathan Christie at 21-15, 23-21 as India clinched a team triumph for the ages. We have had our share of golden moments in badminton before. The beauty of the victory is that nothing about this is accidental. The growth has been incremental and consistent. The coaching staff deserves full credit. The inspiring footprints left by Padukone and Gopichand, through their sheer achievements and their inputs to their successors, have brought Indian badminton to the stage where they could think of getting there. Before this, starting with the Prakash Padukone, All England Badminton Championship title in 1980, India has had its share of individual glory. P Gopichand emulated Padukone’s feat in 2001, followed by individual achievements of Saina Nehwal and then PV Sindhu. But, nothing can beat this collective team effort.
When we compare this with the Indian sporting landscape, Indian tennis has got its moments in the Davis Cup. In different phases and at different times in the nation’s history, our hockey stars and cricketers have given us these moments of collective efforts and team achievements. With this win, our badminton stars led by K Srikanth and company have ensured that they too figure at the top along with Dhyanchand, Kapil Dev and MS Dhoni’s unit. Perhaps, even beyond them- considering the global competitiveness of the sports.
While the Thomas Cup title is an early but definitive sign of India’s emergence as a serious power in sports, what is painful is that the mainstream media cannot put the things in true perspective? Either they have chosen to turn away their face conveniently, or they seem to have lost a pulse on the undercurrents in Indian sports. But then, the Thomas Cup victory has unleashed a storm that will not subside. And there is an underlying pattern to the whole process. The pattern needs to be understood and appreciated.
The Indian team came up with its best-ever medal performance in the Tokyo Olympics. Before Tokyo 2020, when it came to athletics, we used to talk about Milkha Singh’s and then PT Usha’s so near and yet so far moments in Rome and Los Angeles Olympics, respectively. But in Tokyo, Indian athletics had its moment etched in the sport’s history when Neeraj Chopra won a gold medal in javelin. Likewise, in the Tokyo Paralympics, Indian para-athletes won more medals than the combined medals tally in all the previous para-Olympics put together. And, all these are happening because of a sea change in the sporting ecosystem in the last seven years. Slowly and gradually, the results have started emerging. The change in the sporting ecosystem needs to be understood through the prism of Indian badminton.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has spearheaded athletic centric policies like Khelo India and TOPS, which provide support to the athletes from grass root to the podium. In the last four years, Rs 67.10 crores has been spent on training and competitions for the badminton team. In the last one year, before the Thomas Cup Rs 4.5 crores has been spent on 14 foreign exposure trips of the team. To enhance the performance of the doubles team, Coach Mathias Boe was brought on board. His coaching and training methods played a key role in giving the team a self-belief and technique to win against the best. For 2022-23, the Sports Ministry has approved a total budget of Rs 24 crores for badminton, including training, competition, and foreign exposure. 9 of the 10 members of the men’s team and 6 of the 10 members of the women’s team are under the ‘Target Olympics Podium Scheme (TOPS) umbrella. Lakshya Sen, Kidambi Srikanth, Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty are among nine badminton players in the TOPS core group.
This could be further understood when we see the focus on the upcoming major events. With the emphasis on Olympics 2024, Priyanshu Rajawat, MR Arjun, Dhruv Kapila, P Vishwanathan Goud and G Krishna Prasad are part of the TOPS Development Group, which has as many as 26 badminton players. Aakarshi Kashyap, Ashmita Chaliha, Treesa Jolly, Gayathri Gopichand and Tanisha Crasto are in the TOPS development group, with a focus on Olympics 2024 and 2028. Besides, 130 badminton players are Khelo India scholars. The intent and focus are both clear.
The thrust on the Khelo India Games to increase the pool at the bottom and focus on the TOP scheme right at the top has ensured that finally, ‘New India’ has got the template to be a global sporting power in the years ahead. As against the previous government’s reactive policy of thinking about the sports and sportsperson as a ceremonial gesture on the eve of the multi-sporting events, the present Narender Modi government has followed a proactive approach to planning for the future. Proactive and hands-on sports ministers like Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, Kiren Rijiju and Anurag Singh Thakur have ensured the last mile execution of the programmes and policies as per the vision of the leadership. Amidst all these, Prime Minister Narender Modi has been leading from the front, sending a message to the entire Indian sports ecosystem. The Prime Minister meets the sportspersons before and after the significant campaign sending in the message that the country is solidly with them in their victories and defeats.