Grit, Glory and Gold: How giant slayers India pulled off team effort to win first-ever Thomas Cup
The Indian badminton team displayed how the first time can be a charm and scripted a magical run at the Thomas Cup 2022, powered by self-belief, to lift the trophy 'united, as a team' for the first time in 73 years.
Few would have raised an eyebrow, most would have offered a dismissive laugh had this mere idea that the Indian men's badminton team would go on to win gold and become Thomas Cup champions been tossed around, even a week back.
Can you blame them? Not really - so far, in 73-years of the existence of the World Team Championships, India had never been able to lay their hands on a medal and let alone reach the finals.
Yet there was the tingling sensation of hope, the daunting and foolish kind, that is ever-present, whenever India plays anything, still there in the corner and the questions of - 'What if this is time that they will do it?' lurking in the mind.
Despite not having a single Olympic medallist on the team, the Indian shuttlers kept their hopes alive in a competition against the most successful team in Thomas Cup's history.
Perhaps it was this collective 'what-if' chorus or it was the sheer brazen grit of this motley team of seasoned and newbie players with a singular hunger to win as one that did the trick - but the manifestation of an entire country really did work with former World No. 1 Kidambi Srikanth's winning return landing smack! on Jonatan Christie's side of the court and history dug the final nail in the coffin for 14-time Thomas Cup winners, Indonesia.
History was made.
Speaking to The Bridge in the run-up to India's Thomas Cup 2022 campaign, Lakshya Sen's father, DK Sen had conveyed the infectious mood in the Indian badminton camp and their determination to win this time and not return empty-handed.
The team composition was ideal and the iron was hot to strike and this team, coupled with their - 'How's the josh? High, Sir' cries were impatiently waiting for this day because the wait for a medal had been far too long, over seven decades.
Packed with drama from start to finish, India's outing at the Thomas Cup 2022 was truly that of a team as everyone pulled their weight in the campaign and delivered a rounded performance to establish themselves as worthy champions.
From a bullish HS Prannoy who'd use his nerves of steel, overlook his leg injuries and carry India across the line, to Kidambi Srikanth's glorious touch at the net and Lakshya Sen's athletic prowess and psychological maturity to turn a match around and then Satwik-Chirag's emergence as a 'reliable' duo, full of on-court antics that fetched warnings, yellow cards, fist pumps and shirtless moments - the juggernaut that was the Indian badminton team this time was a true spectacle to witness, all united in their desire to win.
Dreamers, believers, magicians
So, what was different this time that was enough to do the job and haul India to a golden finish, you ask?
There is a single word for it - Doubles.
India's constant struggle has been with the doubles in team events with no pair being mature enough earlier to play consistently. And for the most part, India's system has been focused on producing individual medallists and doubles had always been neglected and seen second-in-line and not on the same page - a thought and attitude that long since crippled the growth of Indian badminton.
Yet the Thomas Cup 2022 outing helped showcase simply that - how crucial do the doubles play a role in ties as Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty simply outdid themselves as India's top doubles pairing.
India took out Malaysia, Denmark and eventually Indonesia, all badminton superpowers, onwards from the quarterfinals, to clinch the Thomas Cup crown and what's most noticeable in this trio of ties is the fact that India won their first doubles always with Satwik-Chirag, guided by Danish coach and Olympic silver medallist Mathias Boe acting as the helmsman.
While World No. 9 Lakshya Sen faced the stiffest singles opponent from every side, going first-up and on a trio of occasions failed to register a win for India, a lot of onus and pressure filtered down to Satwik-Chirag to level the tie - and deliver they did with their high quality of creative badminton, which played a phenomenal role in shaping India's victory today.
Further, instead of banking on a select few players, India really chose to let every member of their team play and practically most delivered, notable of which is the triumph of BAI Selection Trials find Priyanshu Rajawat who did a fantastic job in the tie against Canada.
If a golden time in Indian badminton had to be indicated, it would be now, as this team has simply established its depth and its hunger for winning, powered by an intense amount of self-belief that roars, 'Yes, we can!'
This is the future, this is the present - and the world better take note, because India is here to reign hereafter.