Is the NextGen of Indian badminton ready for the big leagues — key takeaways from Asia Team C'Ships
The young Indian badminton squad impressed at the Badminton Asia Team Championships thanks to Lakshya Sen, Ashmita Chaliha but the lack of leadership was also stark.
After a dream start to the Indian badminton 2022 season in January with the India leg of the BWF tour that saw a trio of tournaments - the India Open, Syed Modi Championships and finally the Odisha Open, a lot of hopes were levied on a set of up and coming Indian shuttlers.
Hand-picked and selected for the Badminton Asia Team Championships (BATC) in Shah Alam, Malaysia, the crew that made up the India squad was refreshingly new with young blood coursing through their veins but all-importantly lacking experience of playing in the senior leagues.
Shouldering the weight of an entire nation for the continental tournament that was held from February 15th-20th, the men's and women's badminton team from India was led by the likes of Lakshya Sen, Kiran George and Ashmita Chaliha and Aakarshi Kashyap - all players who had a January they can pat themselves on the back for.
But was it enough to make the cut that would bring home a medal or two and also earn them a qualification spot for the Thomas & Uber Cup Finals in May? Unfortunately not. While the hosts, Malaysia won the men's event, it was Indonesia who won on the women's half but India couldn't make progress beyond the tight group stages.
However, what started with a most upsetting, lack-lustre beginning to the event with the Indian men's team losing 0-5 haplessly against Korea to seeing closer ties being played, by both the men's and women's teams and several of such 'inexperienced' Indian shuttlers stepping up to turn around the matches and consistently making their opponents sweat, it's not such a poor show as it might seem on paper.
In retrospect, the BATC 2022 outing by the NextGen of Indian badminton was impressive but also rather, rudderless, with too many young minds with too little experience to see the whole thing through effectively - making the absence of trusted seniors like PV Sindhu, Kidambi Srikanth, Satwiksairaj Rankireddy-Chirag Shetty a tad bit felt.
Comprising 5 matches in every tie with 3 singles and 2 doubles, as usual, the onus largely remained on the singles matches to work out for India, given that doubles is the Achilles heel for them on the big stage still.
The Indian men were placed in Group A and played 3 group stage ties against Korea, Hong Kong and finally, defending champions Indonesia. The women were placed in Group Y and had Malaysia and Japan to worry about.
Fresh off his India Open win, World No. 13 Lakshya Sen had a stumble, to begin with, against a lower-ranked Jeon Hyeok Jin of Korea, but he regained his focus quickly for the remainder of the ties and gave India the perfect start against Hong Kong and Indonesia. Sen, with a World Championships bronze medal and a BWF Super 500 title under his belt is maybe the most decorous of this lot but it'll still take a while for the 20-year-old to assume responsibility and lead from the front.
It was Mithun Manjunath and the doubles pair of Hariharan and Ruban Kumar however who acted as the real trump cards for the Indian men's team. While Hariharan/Ruban Kumar fought hard and forced the tie against Hong Kong into a decider after an impressive showing, it was Mithun Manjunath who played some commendable badminton and delivered in pressure instances against both Hong Kong as well as Indonesia, winning on both occasions.
On the women's side, Assam's Ashmita Chaliha emerged as the most promising player, as she didn't lose any of her matches at the event, winning both her clashes against Malaysia and Japan. Other than Ashmita, Tara Shah grabbed eyeballs when she played a brave match that put India on the board in the tie against Malaysia that ended with a result of 2-3.
The little hiccups
For the Indian men's side, Kiran George, who just won the Odisha Open Super 300 and was displaying good form, was a little bit of a letdown, as he failed to win any of his 3 matches at the BATC 2022. A Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy product, Kiran George was expected to give Lakshya Sen company and lead the team, shoulder to shoulder but that didn't pan out as he lost all three of his matches, some of which were pretty close and easily convertible into a win.
Similarly, former India No. 1 U-19 doubles duo from Manipur, Dingku Singh and Manjit Singh came frustratingly close to victories but failed to secure a single one, losing steam at all the wrong moments.
On the women's side, Aakarshi Kashyap also played a couple of brave matches and was honestly, praise-worthy but even she failed to deliver and step up at the right moments and lost two matches that could have gone either way. The other big letdown for the women was definitely the doubles as none of the pairs was successful in winning a single match and the difference in playing levels was starkly apparent when they took to the court.
While it's easy to pick out the flaws and the drawbacks, it's equally important to reflect on what the experience of the Badminton Asia Team Championships should hopefully have had on the NextGen of Indian badminton, on the threshold of making their transition from the junior to the senior leagues.
The absence of Sindhu, Srikanth, Satwik-Chirag might have been felt but the presence of Lakshya Sen and Ashmita Chaliha and co. instead was also the need of the hour. The pandemic hasn't done any good for this NextGen of badminton players and they are starved of experience which correlates to their growth as a player.
With the bittersweet experience of the Badminton Asia Team Championships, where save for the men's team winning 3-2 against Hong Kong, neither team won any more ties, there are a lot of lessons to ponder about - especially those related to consistency of form, the doubles dilemma and the handling of pressure in tight situations in team clashes at such stages.
The presence of an able leadership might have solved this issue to some extent but trusting forever on a tried-and-tested set of senior players hampers the overall growth of Indian badminton. Therefore, even though much of the clashes panned out in a rudderless fashion, it thrust the onus of responsibility on young shoulders who did a decent job, in all fairness. It was a necessary risk that needed to be taken - with experience being the biggest takeaway for this motley team of youngsters.
What the Championships essentially revealed is that the NextGen is brimming with confidence and is not afraid to take on higher-ranked players or give them a run for their money. With time and a couple more of such global and continental events to gather their experience from, this NextGen will be ready to stand at par and go toe to toe in a better fashion and produce more uplifting results. It's only a matter of little waiting that needs to be done now.