With the Badminton World Tour taking a break this week, Asia’s powerhouses will battle for continental supremacy at the Badminton Asia Mixed Team Championships that get underway at the Dubai Exhibition Centre in the UAE on February 14-19.
Although the tournament is biennial, it will be resuming after a four-year break -- following the cancellation of the 2021 edition due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
There’s plenty at stake at the first team event of the 2023 season since it has the potential of serving as a dress rehearsal for the Asian teams ahead of this year’s Sudirman Cup -- the World Mixed Team Championships as well as the Asian Games team event.
But while India will be travelling to Dubai carrying the confidence of a historic triumph at last year’s Thomas Cup, the men’s team world championship -- not many would consider it a favourite.
Unseeded India looks for glory
India will be unseeded in Dubai -- a statistic that might seem surprising because an Indian has been on the podium at every edition of the World Championships and Olympic games over the past decade.
The reason though is simple: the absence of the teams’ best-performing shuttler of recent times -- Satwiksairaj Rankireddy, the men’s doubles partner of Chirag Shetty. With Satwik ruled out, a win in the men’s doubles tie is no longer as assured a deal.
There is also some uncertainty over how P. V. Sindhu will perform.
The two-time Olympic medallist is fit again following an injury that cost her nearly half of the 2022 season. However, she’s been tested on her comeback, making first-round exits in both tournaments -- Malaysia Open and India Open -- she’s played this year so far.
Sindhu is not going to have things any easier in Dubai, with Korean An Se Young and Japanese Akane Yamaguchi, apart from the Chinese duo of Chen Yufei and He Bingjiao all committing to competing. Yet it will be hard to bet against the former world champion regaining her place in the pecking order of Asian badminton.
Apart from Sindhu, India’s chances in the Asian Mixed Team Championships will heavily depend on how its men’s singles players perform. India has two proven stars in giant killer H. S. Prannoy and talented Lakshya Sen, the two vital cogs of India’s Thomas Cup triumph, who are no alien to conquering unfamiliar fields.
But a team championship is not about winning one or two disciplines. One needs a bunch of top-performing shuttlers to be the best, at least in three categories.
While India will be hopeful of Sindhu finding her rhythm back and inspiring the whole bunch to raise their level, things could get tricky in the doubles ties. In team championships, doubles categories are rated as more important than singles, as with three sections, it holds an edge over two singles matches.
Losing Satwik to a hip injury at the India Open came as a huge blow to India ahead of the Championships. BAI had to name Dhruv Kapila as his replacement, who will pair up with Chirag. Dhruv incidentally is originally a partner of M.R. Arjun, who is himself nursing an injury currently and only eying comeback once the Olympic qualifying cycle begins in May.
Some understanding of the scratch team’s prospects could be gleaned from how India fares in the group-stage clash against Malaysia on February 16th.
Chirag and Dhruv are two outstanding doubles players with their respective partners, but the lack of pairing sessions between them could put India in trouble when the combo goes head-to-head against world champions Aaron Chia and Soh Wooiyik.
India can still dream of a medal in Dubai, taking inspiration from the Thomas Cup victory, a result that few might have expected. For that, though it might need some strong performances from their women’s and mixed-team pairs.
The emerging women’s doubles pairing of Treesa Jolly and Gayatri Gopichand, who made a historic fourth-place finish in the All England Open and won CWG bronze last year, have a point to prove against Thinaah Muralitharan and Pearly Tan, against whom the Indians are still winless and lost all of their previous four meetings in straight games.
India also has a score to settle against Malaysia, who snatched the team gold from it in Commonwealth Games after the loss in the Thomas Cup when the two sides meet again. On that occasion, India, despite having Sindhu and Satwik-Chirag in its rank, wilted under the smashes of doubles stars Thiaah-Pearly and Aaron Chia-Soh Wooiyik.
Ishaan Bhatnagar and Tanisha Crasto - the only mixed doubles pairing that India has fielded for the Dubai event - will also have a daunting task in hand with the field being fiercely dominated by the Chinese and Japanese shuttlers.
However, India should easily break the group stage hurdle, unlike the 2019 edition. Being superior in skills and more experienced, India should get past Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan and advance. However, the real challenge for India will come in the quarterfinals.
Teams to watch out for
Defending champion China and Japan, the winner of the inaugural edition, will be the teams to watch out for in the Asia Mixed Team Championships. Being the better-balanced sides in almost all five disciplines, China and Japan, much like the last two editions, would enter the event as the favourites.
While Korea and Japan have the two in-form women’s singles players in Young and Yamaguchi, no country has dominated the doubles like China and Japan of late.
With outstanding performances in three doubles categories early in 2023, China will enter the Championships as the favourite.
In mixed doubles, it has world no. 1 Zheng Suwei and Huang Yaqoing, who have had a near-perfect season on the World Tour with nine titles in 2022 and have already claimed the Malaysia Open in 2023. The only pair who stopped the Zheng-Huang juggernaut was the world no. 2 Japanese pairing of Yuta Watanabe and Arisa Higashino.
Similarly, in women’s doubles, Chen Qingchen and Jia Yifen got strong rivals in Japanese Nami Matsuyama and Chiharu Shida.
Indonesia and Malaysia will make their presence felt in the men’s doubles tie with both Fajar Alfian-Muhammad Rian Ardianto and Chia-Wooi Yik coming up with big performances over the last year.
However, the former world champions Takuro Hoki and Yugo Kobayashi of Japan and Chinese Liu Yuchen and Ou Xuanyi are not far behind them.
With balanced squads, especially in doubles and women’s singles, China and Japan will be several steps ahead of Indonesia, Korea and Malaysia.
For India, challenging this pecking order will be a daunting task. But nobody would dare to take the individuals like Sindhu, Prannoy and Lakshya lightly, as they could turn out to be the spoilers.
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