The Indian badminton team celebrate after winning the Thomas Cup in Bangkok on may 15, 2022. India beat Indonesia 3-0. Image Credit: ANI

India’s Thomas Cup win wasn’t a fluke. It was long overdue. Much of the delay stemmed from the lack of professionalism in running Indian sports. You could argue that it’s far better than what it was two decades ago. It should be, and two decades is a long time. And evidence of that improvement is the Thomas Cup triumph.

What exactly is the Thomas Cup? It’s badminton’s equivalent of the Davis Cup in tennis. But the format is different. A team competition of five matches — three singles and two doubles — the format doesn’t allow a player to play in more than one singles and one doubles match. That makes winning a challenging proposition, requiring a pool of world-class players.

Take a look at the roster of previous champions. All of them are badminton powerhouses. Indonesia, China, Denmark, Malaysia and Japan keep churning out high-calibre players by the dozen that they are regulars in the battle for silverware. Earlier, the contest was tougher with nine matches in each tie.

India's Srikanth Kidambi returns a shot to Indonesia's Jonatan Christie during their men's singles game of the Thomas Cup badminton final in Bangkok, Thailand, on May 15, 2022. Kidambi was one of the architects of india's first Thomas Cup win. Image Credit: AP

With only one or two quality players, India could never match the depth and strength of champion sides. That explains the delay in winning the Thomas Cup — India’s first in the 74-year history of the tournament.

Why did it take so long? Why was the depth lacking in Indian badminton? More so in a sport that’s wildly popular. Even in the UAE, check out the badminton halls, and you will find them crowded, except during office hours. Most of the players are from India. These are recreational players who play for the love of the game and fitness. That’s how popular the sport is.

Popularity was never a problem. But the quality was. India had talents of international class, but not many at a time. Nandu Natekar was independent India’s first, making it to the quarterfinals of the 1954 All England Championships. The first Indian to win an international badminton championship (Selangor International in Kuala Lumpur, 1956), Natekar’s high profile scalps included the great Dane Erland Kops.

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That was long before I started following badminton. Long before Prakash Padukone captured India’s imagination.

Padukone’s game was sublime. We marvelled at his effortless artistry, deft touch-play and immaculate deception; he taught us to win without power. I never saw him play a full-blooded smash; the putaways were always a half-smash. We celebrated his wins and lamented his losses. The All-England win over Lim Swie King of Indonesia in the 1980 final and the 1981 World Cup final triumph over Han Jian of China were seared into our memories.

He was a rare gem. Padukone’s successors, Syed Modi and Vimal Kumar, promised much but never scaled the same heights. After India struggled for 21 years to find a new champion, Pullella Gopichand came along. More than his talent, his passion was unmatched. An All England champion in 2001, his bigger contribution to Indian badminton was in the role of a coach. The Gopichand Badminton Academy in Hyderabad turned out to be a factory for world-beaters from India.

Saina Nehwal, P. V. Sindhu, Srikanth Kidambi, Parupalli Kashyap, H.S. Prannoy, Sai Praneeth, Sameer Verma and several others benefited enormously from Gopichand’s tutelage. Some of them were part of the Indian squad that won the Thomas Cup, 43 years after the previous best showing when an Indian team starring Padukone and Modi lost to Denmark in the semi-finals.

India now has around 10 players in the top 25 in the world, and that’s the secret of India’s Thomas Cup triumph. Gopichand is quick to credit the Badminton Association of India, Sports Authority of India and the Government for helping to develop an array of world-class players. “If there were five more singles, India would have still won,” wrote Gopichand in the Indian Express.

What Gopichand left unsaid is that many of these top 10 players came from his academy, and the competition between them is driving the standard higher. So a large part of the credit for the victory should go to India’s chief coach. Ever humble, Gopichand, who compared the win to Indian cricket’s 1983 World Cup triumph, insists that the players and their teamwork won it. But his firm hand on the wheel was evident when India defeated defending champions and 14-time winners Indonesia in the final. A historic win indeed.

Take a bow, Gopichand. You thoroughly deserve it.