As India barrelled towards its date with history at the Thomas Cup, Kidambi Srikanth, the captain of the Indian team, got on a call with a friend — former India No. 1 Parupalli Kashyap.
India had just pulled off an upset over Malaysia to reach the semifinals of the tournament, assuring itself a medal for the first time in the 73-year history of the tournament. The achievement was momentous, but Srikanth was happier with the unprecedented and unabashed display of team spirit that he was seeing from his side.
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The noisy lot
Malaysian supporters outnumbered Indian fans in the stands in Bangkok’s Impact Arena, but the Indian team made up the difference with a bit of enterprise. Team physios and coaches banged on drums and blew airhorns, doubles player Chirag Shetty lost his voice cheering, while reserve players chanted “HSP, HSP” for H. S. Prannoy, who sealed the win in the third singles match.
“Srikanth told me that he’d never seen anything like this,” says Kashyap, gold medallist at the 2014 Commonwealth Games. “He told me ‘ Bhaiya (brother), we have been juniors ourselves, but we never cheered and gave so much support like it is happening now!’ And of course, I joked, what stopped you from doing the same when I was in the team?” Kashyap says.
Much has been made of this team punching above its historical weight and playing as a unit to beat Malaysia, Denmark and Indonesia — teams with a combined 20 Thomas Cup titles between them. Team coach Vimal Kumar says the triumph was as seminal a moment in Indian badminton history as the 1983 World Cup win was to cricket in the country.
Yet only four years ago, Vimal couldn’t even get the players he wanted on the side. If you follow badminton long enough, you will know that former national champion, now a coach at the Prakash Padukone Academy, Vimal is the eponymous Bangalore man. Soft-spoken to a fault, the sort of guy who favours the carrot over the stick.
Back in 2018, as the Indian men’s badminton team teetered on the brink of elimination in the group stages of the Thomas Cup after a loss to minnow France, he did something uncharacteristic. Vimal openly criticised the players — not just those who were there, but also those who were not part of the team. He was angrier at the latter. India’s then top-ranked singles player Kidambi Srikanth — fully fit — skipped the non-compulsory team event to concentrate on the World Tour. Satwiksairaj Rankireddy, meanwhile, missed out as he was writing his Class XII exams.
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“It is unacceptable (for players to avoid the Thomas and Uber Cups). These are the most prestigious team events in badminton. I thought we had one of our best chances in the Thomas Cup with two players in the top 10 (Srikanth and Prannoy) and a very good doubles team (world No. 18 pair of Rankireddy and Chirag). I thought we might have had our first men’s medal this time,” Vimal had said back then.
It was not just the men’s team. Pullela Gopichand also spoke about the lack of unity that troubled the women’s team, competing in the Uber Cup. If Saina was playing, Sindhu wouldn’t be there to support and if Sindhu played, Saina wasn’t around.
Multiple observers, coaches and players have remarked that Indian badminton was built with the individual and not the team in mind.
“I’ve experienced in other countries how they train together for a month before the Thomas Cup. They have long camps and mock matches. We’ve never experienced anything like this because the Thomas and Uber Cups were never treated as particularly important events. It’s just something that’s crammed into the schedule. Everyone’s busy doing their own thing,” says Kashyap.
Individuals over a team
“The circuit is just built in such a way. It is an individual sport and team events aren’t very common. And eventually, every one of your teammates is also a potential competitor. It’s difficult to create a team for a week when for most of the year you must be very selfish, especially if you are playing singles. You are all fighting for the same tournament, the same contracts and even the same spot in the team. And honestly, we weren’t invested in each other. We were happy if the team won but not upset if the team lost,” Kashyap explains.
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While individuals can still unite for a common goal, the apparent impossibility of achieving it can also deter you from giving your best. “To win a tie at the Thomas Cup, you need to win three matches. Either you have three strong singles players, or you have two really strong singles players and one really good doubles pair. In the past, we had two strong singles players, but our doubles pair was almost never in contention,” says Kashyap.
This year, though, things fell in place. India had three top-quality singles players in Lakshya Sen, Srikanth and Prannoy. Sen won the bronze medal at last year’s World Championships and had become the first Indian man, since Pullela Gopichand, to reach the final of the All England Championships. Srikanth, the World silver medallist, made two semifinals at the World Tour this year and was closing in on the form that had eluded him since 2018 when he was ranked No. 1 in men’s singles. Prannoy, though wildly inconsistent as his world ranking of 23 suggests, was still pulling off his giant-killing acts, like beating Viktor Axelsen. Critically, the team could also call on the services of Chirag and Satwik as the first doubles pair.
“In 2014, Sri and I were in the top-10 in singles, but we had a lot of pressure on us. We didn’t expect the doubles players to get a win. After a very long time, we had strong first doubles. These guys can beat the top-10 pairs. That’s a huge difference. All our singles players — probably the exception of Lakshya against Viktor Axelsen and Kento Momota — and our first doubles pair started with a 50-50 or better chance against most of their likely opponents. More importantly, all our players were hitting form at the right time. I wouldn’t say we were favourites going in, but we were definite contenders,” Kashyap says.
The team, too, was thinking on similar lines. “A couple of months ago, when we were still competing at individual tournaments, I told Lakshya and Srikanth that we have a good chance of winning a medal. After a long time, both Srikanth and I were injury-free, and we were all playing well at the same time. So, it was as good a time as any,” Prannoy says. Knowing they could actually win was a powerful incentive. And the team worked towards it.
Prannoy created a WhatsApp group — ‘It’s coming home’ — just for the 10 players. They would go for team dinners. And the team management helped too. “Perhaps in the past, the mindset and atmosphere were a little too strict. This was a team which had a lot of young players. They needed those josh wala (pumped up) vibes. In the past, I sometimes felt, there was no free way to express your natural self. This time the junior players were enjoying themselves,” says Kashyap.
The team found unique ways to build spirit. “We’d announce on the group that we’ll have a meeting at such and such time. And if anyone came even a minute late, then they’d be fined. It wasn’t much. Just about Rs. 500. But it became a thing where all of us would rush to the meeting room,” Lakshya recalls. That money went into a collective pot that was used after the quarterfinals to buy drums and airhorns to amplify the noise the team was making in the stadium. “We felt that we were drowned out by the Malaysian fans in the quarterfinals. So, we decided to get really loud after that. We all knew how vocal the Indonesian fans were. We had to beat them there as well,” says Srikanth. “Satwik had got some drums from India and we bought some more from here. Vijaydeep Sharma (doubles coach) bought a few. Everyone really played their part. Even if you weren’t playing, you could make an impact. It was only in Bangkok, we found that Priyanshu Rajawat (reserve singles player) plays the drums well,” says Srikanth.
While that cheering and dancing made good TV, there was a tangible impact on the side’s performance too. “When you are playing as an individual, you must hype yourself up before matches. This time we had nine others doing it for us,” Srikanth says. Some players, Prannoy explains, needed it more than others. “Lakshya and Satwik at critical moments look at the crowd and they want to see a supportive face. That’s where you need to be there for them.”
“Team support or crowd support isn’t going to do some filmy trick if you are massive underdogs and have a 20 per cent chance of winning. But when both sides are evenly matched, it’s just a matter of having that five per cent edge. That’s where a push from your team comes in. It may not make you play way above your level, but at the Thomas Cup that wasn’t needed. The team had a chance if it played to the potential and that support helped it to do just that,” Kashyap says.
Those marginal points would end up determining ties. Doubles hero Shetty says, “There were a lot of nervous moments in the matches. Especially in the semis and finals, there were instances where it was just a matter of a few points here or there. At that time the energy coming off the stands was so phenomenal that it eased some amount of the pressure Satwik and I were facing.”
While the visible support from the stands was seen by all, the silent support away from the cameras also had a role to play. Former Thomas Cup winner and Olympic silver medallist Matthias Boe, coach of the doubles team, observes how it positively impacted underperforming players to deliver when the team needed it most. “The team support is about helping the players to get one or two per cent extra confidence. Even though Lakshya was unable to give the team winning starts in the quarters and semis, the entire team backed him in the final against (Anthony) Ginting, who had just beaten (three-time world champion) Kento Momota. Lakshya went into that match completely calm. He knew no one was talking behind his back or doubting him. He had two difficult matches, but the team made it clear that everyone was there to back him. That confidence helped him believe it was possible to get a win. And when it mattered, he did,” says Boe.
Lakshya’s win against Ginting put India on the path to a remarkable victory. For now, India is the champion of the world.
Only time will tell if it can retain the crown in 2024. Srikanth and Prannoy will be in their thirties and the vanquished teams will be back with rejuvenated squads. Perhaps the matchups won’t be so favourable next time around. But Srikanth believes the team, now, knows the formula for success. “As long as you are a team, it will be difficult to break you. Especially, when you are playing Malaysia or Denmark or China or Indonesia. You must fight them as a team. An individual player probably can’t fight the Malaysians or the Chinese. But Team India can fight and win,” he says.