From Lakshya to Ashmita: Indian badminton's recent success is a reminder to the government
There has been a wind of change in Indian badminton since Tokyo 2020, signalling a shift outside the sport's traditional power centre. Can policymakers take this as a cue to groom the next batch?
For the longest time, Indian badminton was on the lookout for somebody to take the baton and give PV Sindhu some company at the top. While India has never lacked seasoned and talented badminton players, consistency was missing in the majority - making every apparent successor last for a short surge only, one at a time.
So, when Sindhu ended her Tokyo Olympics outing with bronze and her second overall medal from the quadrennial event and the echoes of it had barely settled - there was an inevitable question floating in the air.
Who will take over from Sindhu and continue the legacy of badminton in India?
Fast forward the months and post-Olympics, two Indians have won three medals in two major competitions — the World Championships and the All England — but none have Sindhu in their name. Instead, there is a former World No. 1 and another more striking, new face who have walked away with these honours.
In India's quest to find a successor, along came Lakshya Sen, bursting on the scene - the young Almora-born badminton player who created waves after he won bronze at the World Championships in Huelva last year.
Quick on his feet, subtle with his netplay and deceptive in the rallies, Sen's form surged at the India Open this January, where he made his presence felt. With a thrilling win against World Champion Loh Kean Yew, Sen showed the spark to take on the mantle from Sindhu.
Embarking on an invincible streak since then, Sen went toe to toe with World No. 1 and reigning Olympic champion Viktor Axelsen, Tokyo bronze medallist Anthony Ginting, fellow World Championships bronze medallist Anders Antonsen in a quick span of two weeks and even managed to defeat all of them, en route to collecting his silver medals from the German Open and the All England.
The arrival of successors
Lakshya's rise is emblematic of the diversification of Indian badminton outside the traditional power centre which is the Puellela Gopichand Badminton Centre. Yes, it is a fact that the top names like PV Sindhu, Saina Nehwal, Kidambi Srikanth and Sai Praneeth have had their association with the famed academy, responsible for churning out the legends of the sport in India. But post-Tokyo Olympics there is a wind of change, a dilution is taking place and the badminton craze is no longer limited to a pocket in Hyderabad.
Ashmita Chaliha is another example of the rise of this NextGen. She is touted to be one of the players to look out for with her quick strides on the court. What is to be noted is that she is not from South India where most of India's shuttlers hail from. Instead, Chaliha comes from Guwahati, Assam, where she trained under Indonesian coach Edwin Iriawan and India's Suranjan Bhobora.
Another shuttler from a non-orthodox place is Unnati Hooda who hails from Rohtak, Haryana, the state that also gifted India's first poster girl of badminton - Saina Nehwal. However, Hooda, just 14-years, has a Super 100 title already under her belt from the Odisha Open earlier this year and egged on by her father, the teenager still trains at a modest government facility up North.
Doing away with epicentres
For many years, India's sporting culture has relied on its traditional centres. Like for wrestling and boxing, it is Haryana, while for track and field events, the concentration is mostly in south India, the Nilgiris region.
Even for badminton, it has been a Hyderabad-centric affair until the rise of an Almora boy from the lofty hills of Kumaon who showed that the badminton culture has slowly started spreading throughout India.
Further east, Manipur is also a treasure trove of upcoming badminton stars like Maisnam Meiraba, and the doubles duo of Manjit Singh and Dingku Singh.
One reason for it is the growth of private badminton academies, who also house top international coaches that have made this possible. The academies have adapted a lot of sports science in their training methods to produce top quality players.
The result is, badminton now boasts a healthy bench strength gearing up to go big however, the impetus is on the government to make it happen.
The need for a scouting system
For long, India has been relying on competitions before it finds its next superstar with no testing ground before it. But with a setup of the scouting system outside usual competitions, the government can find young talents and nurture them early in their career.
The government should work closely with the private academies and find ways to spread the sport to regions where its presence is almost negligible. It would help increase competition domestically and also increase the bench strength and bring in the much-needed diversity to the sport.
With the Paris Olympics nearly two years away, there is not much time to plan. What is usually a four-year cycle was cut short to three due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Athletes had a short off-season before resuming active participation. So, one cannot expect much change for the contingent in Paris.
But this should be the cue to start preparing for the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics, as well. It is there that the likes of Lakshya Sen or Anshu Malik and even Arundhati Chaudhary and Saurabh Chaudhary will be at the peak of their careers and ideally in the golden phase to strike for a medal.
The authorities must manage their workload but also keep the next batch ready to take on the challenge if the need arises. The onus of this curation comes down to the government to constantly think ahead, plan, structure and importantly, nurture the talent to see the medals take shape in reality.