All that glitters not gold in Indian badminton — Lessons from Thomas Cup win

As the IPL – the annual extravaganza of India’s most popular sport – entered its most exciting phase of the season last week, Indians were crazy about something else.

We celebrated a historic victory in the Thomas and Uber Cup – one of the most prestigious competitions in badminton, comparable to any other world cup.

The irony was that India, while known for their individual talents, had this significant moment in Indian badminton history because we had the best team – balanced and pumped – to get the job done. And before I let my cynical self take over, let’s understand why this is such a big win.

The Indian sports circus has been full of action for the last week. In Istanbul, Turkey, the women’s boxing team secured three world medals. A fearless and determined Nikhat Zareen crowned herself World Champion.

Meanwhile, there was quite a fuss surrounding the wrestling selection tests for India’s Commonwealth Games teams. Satender Malik, a 125kg wrestler, slapped a high-ranking referee over a disagreement, causing quite a mess.

But nothing came close to the achievement of a group of 10 shuttles who became one in a WhatsApp group prophetically named “It’s Coming Home”.

The monstrosity of India’s Thomas Cup win

For one, it was a rare performance by the Young’uns with Lakshya Sen, Kidambi Srikanth and HS Prannoy and Priyanshu Rajawat at Bangkok’s Impact Arena. Key doubles players Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty, MR Arjun, Dhruv Kapila, Krishna Prasad and Vishnuvardhan Goud also showed their true potential, egged on by a raucous jubilant Indian side.

To understand why India’s Thomas Cup victory is so significant, we need to look at the fact that this is India’s first triumph in 32 editions. That’s more than seven decades of waiting for this trophy to make its way home.

But that’s not all.

This competition is a priority for the best badminton teams like China and Indonesia who select their best and train specifically for it. It is about high national prestige. It’s almost like a badminton world championship where the best compete against each other.

So yes, I congratulate this new generation of shuttles who have showcased India’s badminton talent – but only as a team. This win doesn’t describe the whole history of Indian badminton, no matter how glittering gold they have now.

Team success is not synonymous with world domination

It was a national team on paper, but of the ten shuttles, nine have roots in the famed Pullela Gopichand Academy. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but we have to wonder what is Gopichand doing right that hasn’t spilled over to other academies yet?

India’s most successful individual shuttles PV Sindhu and Saina Nehwal were once the stars of the Gopichand Academy. It does not bode well for Indian Badminton, which continues to search for a replacement for Sindhu in women’s singles.

Some names have certainly emerged, such as Unnati Hooda, who made her way into the Indian Commonwealth Games squad at the age of 14 after performing well in the BAI exams. But she still shows promise at the senior level.

READ | Behind the success of Unnati Hooda is her father’s unfulfilled dream

Also, a team’s success doesn’t mean we’ve finally paved the way to dominating the sport. This scenario of a team doing well in an Olympic sport is not new to India. Perhaps with social media now a part of everyday life, the generosity of each achievement surpasses all expectations.

In my day, people collected news through newspapers, television, or radio. During this period, the pair of Mahesh Bhupathi and Leander Paes made their name in tennis’ mixed and men’s doubles events.

The pair, known as Lee-Hesh, reached the men’s doubles final at all four Grand Slams, won Wimbledon and the French Open, and eventually rose to world No. 1 in men’s doubles.

But while they did well as a team, they weren’t the best in men’s singles. And that is precisely the point of contention.

Learning from badminton model

As part of the sports community, while we celebrate this historic victory, we shouldn’t get carried away either. That win in Bangkok has now captured the next generation’s imagination that with the right mindset and approach anything is possible – the sky is the limit.

But for that we need to start from the bottom and build on that achievement and find ways to broaden badminton’s horizons outside of its traditional center in Hyderabad. We also need to focus on the second, third and fourth best of each category to build the right depth – across all categories.

One way to do the latter is to focus on team building. India has a very individualistic approach to making good shuttles. But this competition gave us a glimpse of what team building can do.

Players can push each other through tough times and be cheerleaders for their teammates. There is also a sense of competition within the group.

The lack of team building has allowed negativity to spread and individual prospects to be damaged as well. Perhaps the most infamous case would be what happened to the shooting team at the Tokyo Olympics. Though there have been multiple No. 1 and world medalists, the collapse of the team structure ended in a disastrous show at the Games – returning empty-handed and shattered.

But badminton has provided a great working model for the role of team building in otherwise individual-centric sports. Perhaps it’s time for other individual sports to also look at the role of team ethics in building successful groups, and then orient themselves for a more tangible story.

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