India’s Thomas Cup win: Bugle of history, chorus of the future

Our badminton people are going bananas
Srikanth Kidambi after winning a point against Indonesia's Jonatan Christie.(AP) PREMIUM
Srikanth Kidambi after winning a point against Indonesia's Jonatan Christie.(AP)
Updated on May 17, 2022 12:15 PM IST
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BySharda Ugra

Our badminton people are going bananas. It has never been their demeanour — no one ever saw Prakash Padukone doing fist pumps or Pullela Gopichand dancing the Macarena in glee. The Thomas Cup triumph by the Indian men’s team in Bangkok on Sunday has however meant that the floor is being wiped with titles won in other sports – including, would you believe it, the big C. But honestly, if our badminton people won’t go utterly OTT now, then when will they?

The Thomas Cup is the holy grail of men’s team badminton, a reflection of a country’s depth and strength in the sport. At the end of a week that went by in a haze of dreaming, disbelief and euphoria in repetitive cycles, India became only the sixth country to own the Thomas Cup title in the tournament’s 73-year history. Over the past decades, the old order — Indonesia, China, Malaysia, Denmark and Japan — did not cede ground so easily, even when India fielded exceptional, high-quality players, a pantheon of its past greats.

That’s is why we are in delirious debate on which possible pedestal this victory must be placed in the history of Indian sport. But should there in fact be an edging out of the gold-medallist Olympic hockey teams? Or even 1983? Those were Indian champions of their own time and place, of an India and of sport that belonged to another vintage. India’s 2022 Thomas Cuppers are champions of our sport’s tomorrow. This achievement will reverberate deep and long in the future. It has set a benchmark for a new millennium that must now always be aspired in the generation that will undoubtedly be sparked by it.

With this win, these driven, cheeky and fearless young men have also paid tribute to the giants on whose shoulders they stand. As bearers of the light that passed from Nandu Natekar and Dinesh Khanna on to Padukone, Syed Modi and Gopichand, what the 2022 Thomas Cuppers — Kidambi Srikanth, HS Prannoy, Lakshya Sen, Chirag Shetty and Satwiksairaj Rankireddy — have done is set it on a high beam.

There is much that can be unwrapped from under the confetti and glitter that now covers a supercharged and emotional victory for the Indian badminton men. The Thomas Cup victory marks a milestone in not just in Indian badminton, but across Indian sport in the message it has sent and the statement it has made.

That what it takes to get to the top of a sport, any sport, is the creation of an ecosystem that does the simple things with repeated commitment: churns out players and events in numbers, gives players the chance to run into quality competition day after day and ensure that the best of them can go out into the world. Week after week, season after season, with team mates adding to the depth of field, until the best begin to come through. The rival badminton academies of Hyderabad and Bangalore have kept the wheels moving and what began with the emergence of Saina Nehwal from 2006 onwards, has led us here, to an explosion of male talent, to the Thomas Cup title.

Which must also lead to a good round of cliché-busting. Particularly of the old-fangled, frankly 20th century notion of Indians being unable to succeed in athletically demanding sport. Today, India are world team champions in what is the world’s fastest racket sport, one with the most complex set of athletic requirements. In tennis and table tennis, movement goes side to side and front to back. Elsewhere, in basketball it’s front and back, up and down. In volleyball up and down, plus short requirements of lunge/dive to keep the ball in play by a team mate.

Every badminton rally features some or all of these complex physiological movements – forward, back, up for the jump smash, down for the corners, then into a high arch for the backcourt return, then the retrieve-dive on the diagonal, and up on the feet again to work the rally. This with power and touch, shoulder, elbow and wrist, hammer and feather to equal use. We saw the Indian mind and muscle at thrilling work against teams with Thomas Cup pedigree -- Malaysia, Denmark and Indonesia.

Then there’s the Boomer special -- the habitual Indian under-pressure fold, that was tossed into the bin last week as well. Ask the doubles fiends, Satwik and Chirag, vaulting onto the high wire of match points to defend, and responding as if it were a high-intensity, hitting session in Hyderabad. Or HS Prannoy, 29, ankle swelling, but heart growing larger too, during two back-to-back deciders.

Maybe you can say that it was the comfort of team that gave each man a chance to shine, but alongside the television coverage and YouTube clips, it was a set of photographs minutes after the victory that captured the emotional whirl that was title win. In the first, Srikanth has just beaten Jonatan Christie and turns around to his team mates, arms in the air. India’s Thomas Cup captain is not grinning or leaping. He looks like a bearded badminton sage, in his eyes, a flickering of something between joy, relief, discovery even. That a job has been done, a door has been opened, his team has now stepped into where they had always wanted to go.

A few seconds later in the second photograph, Srikanth is smothered by his team mates; Chirag is rolling on the ground, Satwik is on his leaping in another direction, jacket in hand. A member of the support staff, back to the camera, is in disbelief, hands on head. It looks like Vimal Kumar, member of the Indian team that made the last Thomas Cup semi-final in 1979, national coach and selector today. The Class of 22 must be grateful that Indian badminton’s finest stayed committed to the light even it began to flicker and fade in the 1990s.

One of the events that inspired the founder of the Thomas Cup, Sir George Alan Thomas, an English badminton player of the 1900s, was tennis’s Davis Cup. It has been won by 15 nations and while you can argue about the width and diversity of the tennis world, you must remember that India enjoyed a strong presence in the tournament and entered the final three times. Through the 1980s and 1990s, the Indians punched above their weight in the Davis Cup, the event bringing their fans, both in India and overseas, to the stadium to support the team. If Indian tennis needs any clues to how to find its way back into public affection, it could take notes from Indian badminton, rather than sneer by citing “Asian domination” as an excuse for its own failings.

The soundtrack of the India’s Thomas Cup final was a throwback to the Davis Cup sound and fury, this time minus the “silence please”. There were bhangra dhols, what sounded like pipes, drums and plastic tube clappers alongside the thundering chorus of exhortation and support from hundreds of throats. Last week, for the benefit of anyone who had not noticed or chose not to pay attention, Indian badminton made the biggest noise in its history.

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Monday, July 04, 2022