Unsung heroes of Thomas Cup: Keeping the Indian badminton team 'fit' for gold
Behind the glittering Thomas Cup gold and the heroics of Kidambi Srikanth, HS Prannoy & Co. lie the unseen efforts of a dedicated team of physios busy keeping the team fit and ever-ready for glory.
With heart rates steadily climbing, and a whole nation praying, and palpitating - India watched HS Prannoy take on Denmark's Rasmus Gemke in the last semi-final tie match at the Thomas Cup 2022.
The stakes were high - between India earning their place to fight for Thomas Cup gold and settling for bronze, an HS Prannoy was there, shouldering the responsibility to carry India through, up against the World No. 13 from Denmark, desperate to create history.
But, snap! Barely touching on the mid-game interval of the first set, HS Prannoy fell and twisted his heel in an ugly fashion, his face writhing in pain, the limp starting to show, the golden dream also feeling the blow.
In the dugout corner, for the Indian badminton team's long-time physiotherapist, Sumansh Sivalanka, the sweat beads only trickled more, what with the whole situation of final-or-no-final toying with the nerves.
"I was actually worried when we saw the replay on the big screen and his (Prannoy's) expressions on the court, I knew it was going to be bad," Sumansh tells The Bridge, days after India scripted history magically at the World Team Championships and won the Thomas Cup crown, defeating 14-time champions Indonesia in the finals 3-0.
"Both Dr Kiran, my senior colleague and I were concerned till the end of the game, it was a tense situation. But we were kind of communicating also with Prannoy during the match as the dugout was quite close and he kept telling us that it was getting better, so we were a little calm," Sumansh recalls, explaining how the court conditions were far from ideal at the Impact Arena in Bangkok with players easily slipping and falling and getting injured.
"Thankfully, most of our players are taped at the ankle, so a protective layering was already there on the ankle that took the hit, that was lucky for us, although the timing of the injury couldn't have been worse."
What Prannoy managed to do after that is hard to forget - as he dug deep against Gemke, who tried to force him into rallies. With the Indian camp shouting hoarsely and cheering 'HSP! HSP! HSP!', Prannoy moved like a man on a mission, despite the obvious injury bothering him on occasion and seized the win for India, booking them a place in the Thomas Cup finals.
"During the match, Prannoy did pop a painkiller but I don't think it could have kicked in so soon, because the match lasted for another 30 minutes! More than any painkiller, it was Prannoy's grit and determination to stay in the match and win it for the team," Sumansh reveals, full of appreciation for the veteran shuttler, whom he has worked closely with over the years.
"You can always go and talk to Sumansh. He probably knows our bodies the best. Even if it is a minor niggle, we go and ask him because you never know that niggle could turn into a major woe during a tournament. Sumansh knows very well who has what problem and what's one's weakness," HS Prannoy tells The Bridge, ever thankful for the physio team's interventions.
"During Thomas Cup, all the staff member was fired up. It looked like they were mentally present on the court too," Prannoy recalls.
"They knew we had chances to win and so they left no stones unturned. I remember Sumansh was working under pressure when I got injured. I remember him wearing the same t-shirt through the entire tournament, he said it was lucky for him," he reveals with a chuckle, claiming how the victory was equally possible because of the unseen efforts of Sumansh and Kiran, in helping the team stay fit and ready to take a shot at history and the Thomas Cup gold.
Fitness, Recovery, Performance - striking the balance
It's mind-boggling just how much sport has changed over the last few years, taking a more physically-demanding, mentally-gruelling role, making the competition stiffer and champions even more select. The same has taken place in badminton, one of the fastest racquet sports in the world, the pace has only become maddening with a hectic badminton calendar to adjust one's schedule to.
"Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic, the badminton calendar has become too jam-packed. In fact, last year, we had the Sudirman Cup, Thomas and Uber Cup back to back followed by a couple of BWF tournaments in Europe, making it a five-week-long tour for the players, amidst strict travel regulations, it was a very tough time.
"With all of them being prestigious events, there was hardly any time for the team to recover and perform consistently," Sumansh explains.
The post-COVID resumption of badminton has seen a sharp rise in injury rates with players having to withdraw mid-tournament, due to a variety of fitness issues, which are effects of the hectic schedule.
"The first tournament after the pandemic, in Thailand, was a disaster! We couldn't even exit the hotel because of the COVID protocols and we were being served bad quality food, which was a letdown but we couldn't help the situation either," Sumansh reveals.
"Moreover, from India, the lack of connectivity to other places is a bother and the odd hours of travelling, long transit time, everything took a toll on the body of the players and that is directly proportional to the rate of injury.
"This posed a key problem for us last year as we hardly had access to any official gym during the tournaments in Europe. Being a team event, 10 people holed into a small gym for an hour and did the minimum they could do. In Denmark, I remember we took some weights and would train with them in the parking lot because there was so little space in the gym rooms!
"So, in a five-week tour, our players could visit the gym only four-five times and alongside they were playing high-intensity badminton - that is not the right mix of training and performance," Sumansh explains.
Former World No. 11 player, Sameer Verma, who also had a good run during this European tour last year before he suffered a calf injury also wrote in a piece for The Bridge, "Honestly, this is a period of adjustments and all of us are trying to push hard because we have only a handful of tournaments left and in the process, we are getting injured too or not getting enough time to recover."
For a player to go out there and perform, a lot depends on if they have recovered well, because once they enter the court for a match, there is no turning back, no room for excuses.
Just like a gladiator enters the ring with only one motive in mind - to win, so do the badminton players.
"Once the athlete is on the court, they can't control how much they should move, they enter the court to win the match, whatever may come. If the recovery is not on point, the injury rates go up," Sumansh mentions, stressing the importance of understanding one's own body and focusing on the recovery and rehabilitation aspects rather than just performance only.
"But players and coaches are more aware of the recovery aspects, they are choosing their competitions wisely and not blindly playing all the tournaments," Sumansh states, observing how the scene has changed gradually in the last half-decade.
"Sumansh, Kiran Sir and Johnson has been a part of our badminton system for over 8 years now. While we play on the court, they have to do all the hard work outside the court. I know how challenging it is for Sumansh, we go match-to-match in a short period of time and they help us find the best solution possible for our injuries," Prannoy says, exclaiming how despite Sumansh being senior to them has managed to blend in with the spirited Indian badminton team so easily and so well.
It's no mean task to keep a team fit for playing at a top-level and desire for them to produce winning acts on repeat and behind the on-court success of the Indian badminton team, lies the quiet and diligent work of this team of physios, Sumansh included, who are no less than miracle-workers, armed with remedies up their sleeves, helping the squad soldier up, put on a show and make history on the court.