Propelling Badminton into the hotshot league

Saina Nehwal began and ended the Indian Badminton League by meeting and beating P. V. Sindhu.-VIVEK BENDRE

Being a first, the IBL could not be compared with any other similar event. It was a brave attempt by those who had no experience of holding an event of this magnitude and, overall, the IBL did succeed in establishing badminton as an exhilarating spectator sport in this otherwise cricket-crazy nation, writes Rakesh Rao.

After all the scepticism, bordering on cynicism, the inaugural edition of the Indian Badminton League culminated with the strongest team taking home 35 per cent of the million-dollar prize money. In a way, the finale proved a fitting one with the Saina Nehwal-led Hyderabad Hotshots outplaying Awadhe Warriors, that finished second in the league phase, in a tense final.

In fact, Awadhe had recruited more Hyderabad-based singles players than any other team. Considering that the city has become a nursery to hone the best of the country’s badminton talent, the IBL final inadvertently was a compliment to the contribution of chief National coach P. Gopi Chand.

Indeed, the performances of the Indians against some quality overseas players, proved heartening during the 17-day League. Players like P. V. Sindhu, Ajay Jayaram, B. Srikanth, R. M. V. Gurusai Dutt, Saurabh Verma and B. Sai Praneeth managed a win or two over higher-ranked rivals. However, P. Kashyap lost three out of five matches and let down Banga Beats that finished last.

The top-ranked Lee Chong Wei was an object lesson to the youngsters in the Mumbai Masters team.-K. MURALI KUMAR

Saina, feeling low after the World championships, won all her seven matches to prove her worth. She started and ended her campaign in a similar way — by beating Sindhu in straight games. But it must be said that these clashes, understandably hyped by the media after Sindhu’s bronze medal from the World championships, did not live up to expectations.

But the IBL was more than on-court performances.

It provided the first-ever platform to showcase badminton in a way that it became a talking point among the country’s sports lovers. The caravan rolled out of Delhi and terminated in Mumbai after passing through Lucknow, Pune, Hyderabad and Bangalore. It provided the young Indians in various team platforms to interact with their more illustrious overseas team-mates.

World number one Lee Chong Wei, a late-arrival, was indeed the prize-catch of the league. It was indeed a great opportunity for the Indian players from Mumbai Masters to watch his pre-match preparations from close. Only the IBL could have given the lesser Indians an opportunity to travel with the Malaysian, seek his guidance and spend some light moments, too.

Legendary sportsmen from other disciplines, Rahul Dravid (above), Sachin Tendulkar and Mahesh Bhupathi (below), also succumbed to the magic of IBL.-K. MURALI KUMAR

VIVEK BENDRE

Though the IBL had its share of controversies that helped in keeping the event in the public eye. The manner in which the base price for icon players G. Jwala and Ashwini Ponnappa was reduced at the last minute without informing these players brought some needless bad publicity. The ageing doubles duo of Sanave Thomas and Rupesh Kumar, too, hit the headlines citing a similar reason but were not taken seriously.

Former Olympic champion Taufik Hidayat was misquoted by a certain section of the Mumbai media, complaining about not getting a higher bid at the auction, blaming the IBL and vowing not to return for the next edition. Based on this misinterpretation, the media sought the views of Saina, who criticised the now-retired Indonesian for his reported stand. This invited a tweet from Jwala defending Hidayat. The doubles specialist took a swipe at Saina, without mentioning her, saying it was a matter of respect, not money.

Two days later, Saina backtracked and said she was misquoted.

Worse, the teams were peeved at the IBL’s Governing Council’s inconsistency in applying the rules. Well after the auction, the Awadhe team was justifiably allowed to replace a ban-facing Thai player Maneepong Jongjit with the Olympic men’s doubles silver medallist Denmark’s Mathias Boe for a reduced base price. A week into the IBL, Awadhe also substituted Thailand’s Sapsiree Taerattanachai with leading doubles specialist Pia Zebadiah Bernadeth. The Indonesian, ranked sixth in women’s doubles and ninth in mixed doubles with brother Markis Kido (a member of the Awadhe line-up), was in the reserve list following the auction.

These changes strengthened Awadhe’s doubles capabilities that reflected in its resurgence after losing the first two ties. When some of the franchisees questioned why a higher-ranked player was allowed as a replacement, the Governing Council members pleaded that the idea was to accommodate better players in the first edition.

However, when Banga Beats managed to fly down Denmark’s Jan O Jorgensen, ranked ninth, for an eighth-ranked but injured Hu Yun of Hong Kong, the IBL acceded to the protest of Delhi Smashers and forced Banga to revise its line-up.

“I think, the IBL Governing Council should have been transparent, firm and clear about its own rules. I understand Jwala had every reason to protest (against Banga). But the IBL should have allowed us to field Jorgensen just as they had allowed Awadhe to make changes in the squad that eventually reflected the team’s changed fortunes,” said Vimal Kumar, the coach of Banga Beats.

The timing of the matches, with the double-header starting at 4 p.m. and 8 p.m., clearly saw a reduced presence of the spectators midway through the second tie. With most mixed doubles matches ending past midnight, the players were left with little time to sleep before catching the morning’s first available flight out of the city. Players were also unhappy with the restriction imposed by the IBL on their talking to the media during match days. Unlike the usual practice of players coming to the mixed zone minutes after their match for a brief chat with the media, the IBL decided to make available only select players that too after the end of the tie, past midnight. No wonder, there were hardly any takers for such a thoughtless arrangement.

Though the match was beamed live to several countries, the Hindi commentary team, that included former internationals, invited repeated ridicule from badminton circles, for their blatant sycophancy. “Instead of any insightful analysis, it was a virtual post-mortem of each point with the commentators only voicing what was seen and not adding to the picture,” said a former India player.

As the Bangalore-based badminton writer Dev Sukumar observed, “There were several areas for improvement aimed at the spectators and the players, not to forget the standard of television commentary. At several venues, spectators deserved a better deal. The organisers could have worked towards providing a carnival-like ambience so that more spectators could have thronged the venues. In Bangalore, it was great to see a revamped, new-look Kanteerava Stadium that is otherwise used for non-sporting events as well.”

Being a first, the IBL could not be compared with any other similar event. But it was a brave attempt by those who had no experience of holding an event of this magnitude. With no control over the stadiums, the organisers faced their share of problems. Overall, the IBL did succeed in establishing badminton as an exhilarating spectator sport in this otherwise cricket-crazy nation. This should be seen as a promising start to a long journey ahead.