Badminton's History Makers: The Push To Podium
Indian badminton achieved a rare high over the weekend by winning the Thomas Cup. This, one of the best wins in Indian sport, did not happen by chance. True, India were underdogs against badminton giants like Malaysia, Denmark and Indonesia but the path to podium was laid almost a decade back.
A glorious cross court smash by Kidambi Srikanth sealed the moment of joy for the blue billion. This was perhaps the most important point in Srikanth's entire career, the win coming at 23-21.
Celebrations erupted at the Impact arena. The entire team danced for joy and on the ringside, the Indian fans bathed in the tri-colour.
Since the semi-final, HS Prannoy had been inviting the Indian fans to come, fill the arena. They listened.
Siyadath, the Indian Badminton coach, who was a part of this history-making campaign says," They came and they came with drums, anticipating the moment".
India won the Thomas Cup for the first time ever, beating Indonesia 3-0 in the final.
HS Prannoy, one of the architects of the win recounts, "To witness something like this, to stand on the podium in Thomas Cup gave me goosebumps. I am sure half of us in the team never believed that this would happen. But it happened. I think when we came here we told ourselves that we could win a medal, but never thought of winning a Gold medal. Still can't believe it"
Prannoy had created a Whatsapp group 'It's coming home' around the time of the Korea Open to get the 10 boys together and discuss their issues. "And it came home. But we had our issues, we had ups and downs. The discussions on the group helped us stay together, understand each other well," Prannoy said, and then chuckled, "I told them that this is why I should be making all the Whatsapp groups."
Aggression and calmness, highs and lows
The Whatsapp group was a way to channelise the energy, the excitement. But the boys inside the cauldron remained calm.
Chirag Shetty did a Sourav Ganguly act after winning the doubles match in the final. He ripped off his t-shirt and threw into the crowd. The 24 year old says it was the 'moment' and he 'went with the flow, did what came naturally'.
While the world saw aggression, coach Pullela Gopichand saw calmness.
"Amazing to see the energy they brought into the team. What you see is the aggression and outwardness, what I really like is the calmness inside. From going down to serving a championship point -losing those games to coming back; staying calm when your team is dancing and you are sticking to your job; is a story of inner calm. I think that is important. Staying in there and saying that I will finish the match, that kind of focus is important."
"Even the way Lakshya (Sen) kept fighting at 11-7 down is commendable. He was there thinking how do I turn it around. Satwik and Chirag stayed in to fight for each point, eventually the magic happened. So I think you are seeing the aggression, I am rejoicing the fact they stayed calm and wrapped it up - Prannoy, Lakshya, Srikath, Satwik-Chirag.. even the boys who did not win did very well. That is what I am super happy about."
Deepthi Bopaiah, CEO of GoSports Foundation, said "Gopi Sir says he saw the calmness and we saw the aggression.. I saw a new, fearless India, a set of role models, who just go all out, give it their all. That is what is making it a joyous, historic moment for all of us. We had Neeraj's gold and after that we are experiencing this. Every single person -- whether they follow badminton or not is talking about it or tweeting about it. It is being compared to the (cricket) World Cup of 1983. I think it is a new fearless face of India. These boys are big role models and each one of us has a lot to learn from them."
The high did not come without hitting those lows.
Prannoy rewinds to a low point they experienced during the campaign.
"I remember we had a bad match against Chinese Taipei and Chirag-Satwik were very disappointed. Chirag came in and said we need to meet right now, started speaking very emotionally, saying this is not the way we want to play. That just threw up a lot of insights about each and every one on that particular day. The energy shifted from there on, one could see how each one started to play. That is when I started feeling that this team can do wonders. I realised as an individual that this team can win this. Everyone started believing this is going to happen. This is a journey that took a decade's time -- to have this much depth in the team. Gopi Sir has produced individual champs, eventually it all came together at this team event and we went onto lift the Thomas Cup"
Quick results in men's badminton?
It has taken a decade's planning to get here. But Gopichand thinks that the evolution of the team has been quick
"This has happened so quickly. In 1994 India did not send a team to CWG as we could not make it to the top 6. Australia, Malaysia, Canada, England were stronger teams. From there to winning the Thomas Cup is huge. For me a lot of support, most importantly the players believed in themselves and supported each other, and magic happened in Thailand.
"It all started 2008 onwards with Saina. 2010 Commonwealth games gave the impetus to badminton. Her medal in Beijing was important. 2016 Rio Games Sindhu won silver, then the World Championship medals for the boys -- Lakshya, Srikanth and the emergence of doubles. There has been a combination of things. Prannoy and Srikanth have seen ups and downs. They are playing for their personal pride, their country's pride; together as a team they are competing with each other, complementing each other and I think it is a great thing to do. They have got the team revolving around each other, that is phenomenal. Prannoy went through a phase and said I am not going to give up. The team said we are not letting you give up either. That support makes a huge difference. Then the doubles players came up saying count us in too," Gopichand said.
It takes a village to raise a champion
And the transition happened with the help of various stakeholders like the government, private funders like GoSports Foundation who worked tirelessly with Gopichand and several others in the badminton system.
Deepthi recounts about work with this bunch of champions.
"I remember conversations with Gopi 10 years ago when they were young boys. We spoke at what stage who should peak, who can peak, how they will come to the fore. There is a lot of work that has happened at that end. As a foundation our job has been to ensure that the athlete is well supported to get to the next level. From the technical perspective Gopichand academy provided them all. From our end it was to ensure that the athletes have their high performance in place, nutrition and physio set up," she said.
"It has been a long term journey -- seeing them from super talented youngsters to matured men who have taken a big job of winning medals for the country is incredible. It is a complete mindset. Some of them had bad lows, Covid did not help, but the team's camaraderie was there to see. They played like Team India," she added.
'83 moment of Indian badminton?
Gopichand does not agree with the comparisons with the 1983 moment.
"Last few years have been great for the sport -- for the last 10 years Badminton has seen a steady rise. We are looking at a different sport. This win takes it to another level -- inspire a whole generation of sportspeople- to believe in themselves, not just in badminton but also to achieve in anything in life. That is how I look at this bunch of champions. They have inspired people in sport and beyond."
What next for the champs?
Super coach Gopichand is known to be a hard taskmaster and to hear this from him is quite unusual,
"I want to tell them, boys just relax, it is okay. Eventually get back to the process and do the simple things right. It might happen this year, next year. If you do the things right, magic will happen. They have shown best results possible. I have friends in Malaysia, Indonesia. The call which I got was from Malaysia -- they are saying 'wow, what is happening, this is unbelievable'. For us, these kids have gone there without much expectation from others. They had expectations from themselves and few of us. The core team believed that there was a possibility. I think this should inspire the sporting eco system and send the message, the best can happen in a few years."
Indians would say "Yeh dil maange more" and coaches like Gopi are aware. They are not letting their foot off the pedal, neither are the funders. Deepthi speaks about how each one can contribute and be a stakeholder to the moments of glory in the future
"There is a chance for corporate India to come forward and support and we have to create that bench. While these boys will continue to do well for 3/4/5 years and slightly beyond, the bench strength for LA (2028 Olympics) needs to get created right now. There is a huge opportunity and responsibility that comes with this win to ensure that this keeps coming and it is everyone's responsibility here."
The eco-system is ready to deliver more goosebumps moments this year and beyond.