Badminton has been one of India’s better prospects in international competitions. Prakash Padukone started India’s obsession with badminton, way back in the 1980s. However, it has reached its peak only in recent times, with shuttlers like PV Sindhu, Saina Nehwal, and Kidambi Srikanth shining on the international stage.
The Indian badminton contingent has usually performed well in competitions such as the BWF World Series and the Commonwealth Games. However, India hasn’t had much luck in the Asian Games when it comes to badminton.
The 2014 Asian Games were one of the most disappointing international events for the Indian badminton contingent. Superstars such as Saina, Sindhu, Srikanth, and Parupalli Kashyap came home from Incheon empty-handed. Out of India’s fifty-seven medals, the badminton squad only contributed to one. The solitary badminton medal came in the women’s team event, where they finished in the third position.
Needless to say, Badminton Association of India immediately got back to the squaring board, as did the athletes, to ensure the same doesn’t happen in the future.
Road to Asiad 2018
Four years is a long time in sports. In four years, a prospect can turn into a well-rounded sportsman. In four years, champions can turn into has-beens.
BAI and Indian shuttlers used their four years wisely, slowly but surely improving the quality of badminton in India. As a result, India was represented by a strong badminton contingent at Gold Coast for the 2018 Commonwealth Games. The Indian squad was able to muster up a staggering six medals out of the ten available in Badminton.
Inspired by the Commonwealth heroics, BAI has once again chosen a strong squad for the upcoming Asian Games, one which is expected to get medals.
Led by PV Sindhu and Srikanth Kidambi, the badminton squad is filled with potential medal winners in both singles and doubles category. Chirag Shetty, Satwik Rankireddy, Sai Pranneth, and Sameer Verma also make the men’s squad, while Ashwini Ponappa and Sikki Reddy make the cut for the women’s squad.
Women's team for the #AsianGames2018 : Saina Nehwal, P V Sindhu , Sikki Reddy, Ashwini Ponappa, Sai Uttejitha Rao, Ashmita Chaliha, Rituparna Panda, Aarthi Sara Sunil, Akarshi Kashyap, Gayatri Gopichand Pullela pic.twitter.com/n1N5qcJO16
— The Bridge (@TheBridge_IN) June 27, 2018
BAI also has taken a different approach while selecting players this time around. They have filled in some spots with automatic selection, while the remaining with the help of trials.
While the men’s squad is quite balanced, the same cannot be said for the women’s squad. For some reason, BAI has decided to fill up six slots in the women’s squad with singles players.
This is a problem due to one very specific reason. According to the technical handbook for Badminton at the Asian Games, each country is allowed two entries per event. This means that, reasonably, both singles and doubles category should have two main entries and one to two reserves.
Therefore if either of Saina or Sindhu are unable to play, four other shuttlers will be ready to take their place. However, if one of the doubles teams withdraws from the competition, there will be no one to take their place, potentially denying India a medal.
This sever imbalance has also caused some shuttlers to speak up. Aparna Balan is one of those.
(T2) I am continuously and deliberately ignored and neglected for the furthurence of exerting hidden motive from the part of some persons in the selection committee @BAI_Media @Media_SAI @Ra_THORe #AsianGames2018
— Aparna Balan (@aparna_leo) June 28, 2018
Balan is a doubles player and the decision to not take a reserve doubles team astounded her. As a result, she took to Twitter to voice her displeasure at the whole situation.
“We are again ignored from the Asian Games team, being performed will in the selection tournament for Asian Games 2018,” Balan tweeted.
She also stated that this is not the first time she and other doubles members have been ignored and that taking a fifth and sixth singles player makes no sense.
“This is not the first time I am ignored from the team. Being 9 times National Champion, I had excluded from 2014 Asian Games and Commonwealth Games,” Balan continued. “Inclusion of extra two singles players is made for the exercise and fulfillment of that motive of some of the persons in the selection committee. There is no rationale for the inclusion of 5th and 6th Singles player in the Asian Games team without a single backup pair for the Doubles.”
— Aparna Balan (@aparna_leo) June 28, 2018
Balan has received overwhelming support on her views, with fans of the sport also disagreeing with BAI’s decision.
View from the other side
However, no argument is worthy without understanding the opposite side, which in this case would be the trials. BAI conducted a long and thorough process to fill the remaining spots for the Asian Games.
Out of the twenty, seven spots were filled via these trials. The Federation conducted two tournaments, in Bangalore and Hyderabad, to select the best players for the remaining spots.
A lot of other criteria were kept in mind while filling out the seven spots, such as a players’ fitness and form over the course of the last six months as well as coaching reports from training camps.
There was a huge disparity in these spots, however, as six of them were assigned for the women’s squad. This means that BAI considered only four female players good enough to be automatically selected.
While one could argue that, in such a case, trials are the only way to separate the best from the rest. However, this decision has left the Indian women’s team highly vulnerable.
As per the official Asian Games technical handbook, only two entries are allowed for both singles and doubles events. Therefore it would make sense to follow a two-plus-two policy in singles (four players), while a two-plus-one policy in doubles (three teams, six players).
Another argument which can be raised is that none of the singles reserve players are likely to get a chance to play at the Asian Games. Therefore, why not add a backup doubles team to bring more balance to the squad.
So far, the situation remains that Rutaparna Panda and Aarthi Sara Sunil will be the second team playing the Doubles. The decision to send them may have been based on their performance at the two ranking tournaments that were recently held in Bengaluru and Hyderabad. The duo of Panda/Sara Sunil clinched the Women’s Doubles title in one while reaching the semi-finals in the other. In addition to Ashwini Ponnappa and Sikki Reddy, this will be the team where the most hopes are pinned.
The thing is, according to the BAI points system, both duos of Panda/Sara Sunil and Balan/Shruti Kurien have exactly the same points based on their performances in the senior ranking tournament. Both pairs won a title and reached the semi finals of either competition. A Head to head between the two teams saw Panda/Sara Sunil get the advantage. But it still does not explain why the balance in the team shouldn’t be better when it comes to Singles and Doubles players in the fray for the Asiads.
Nonetheless, BAI has decided to send six singles players and four doubles players, striking an imbalance in the team. In a case where one of the women’s doubles team withdraws from the competition, India will only be left with one entry in that category.
It also presents a situation highly unfair for shuttlers like Aparna Balan, who have done well constantly on a national and an international level.
In the end, one can only hope for the best.
BAI’s decision to withhold a reserve doubles team for women is baffling and a sign of complacency. Hopefully, the reserves might not even be needed during the course of the tournament.
However, if such a situation does indeed arise, India will be left unprepared on one of the biggest stages of the sporting world.