Kolkata: Indian badminton, which saw their men’s team scaling the pinnacle of the sport by winning the Thomas Cup in May, should try to maintain the momentum by gunning for the team championship gold in the upcoming Commonwealth Games - according to Vimal Kumar, one of the brains behind the Cup glory. The multi-discipline Games will be held in Birmingham, England from July 28-August 8.
A formidable nine-member squad sees the likes of Lakshya Sen, Kidambi Srikkanth and double Olympic medallist PV Sindhu leading their campaign in the mixed team event in Birmingham, which has a strong presence of Indian expats. Vimal Kumar, a former stalwart the manager of India’s history-making squad at Thomas Cup, says the squad needs to put their best foot forward against the likes of Malaysia, Singapore and England, who are going to be main threats.
Speaking to Gulf News during an exclusive interview over phone from Bengaluru, Kumar, who is credited with grooming young Sen to a potent force on the world stage, said: ‘‘As far as I reckon, Malaysia can be their main threat for the team gold. With almost a full strength team at their disposal, India should be able to win the men and women’s singles and men’s doubles but the fight in mixed doubles will be tough. It’s a best-of-five format which can go down to the wire.’’
Now the Co-Founder and Chief Coach of the Prakash Padukone-Rahul Dravid Centre of Sporting Excellence in Bengaluru, former Indian chief coach Kumar is still effusive about the manner in which the Indian men’s team swept aside one formidable opposition after other to become the world champions of the sport in Thailand. They shrugged off the challenge of five-time champions Malaysia in the quarter finals, Denmark in semis and a sweeping 3-0 verdict against Indonesia, 14-time champions, in the final.
‘‘It’s nearly two months to the day but I think the enormity of the achievement has not really sunk in with our people. I remember the feat being compared with India’s 1983 World Cup win in cricket, but there is a difference between the two. India were nowhere as a force in 50-overs cricket and hence it was a bigger surprise but in badminton, we had been a considerable force in both men and women. The likes of Lakshya and Srikkanth were consistently beating the top players (they are currently the bronze and silver medallists, respectively, of the last World Championships) while we have a world class doubles pair in Chirag Shetty-Satwiksairaj Rankireddy,’’ said 57-year-old Kumar, a self-confessed disciple of Padukone.
‘‘I felt from the beginning that we really had a balanced team and could really go the distance. The Thomas Cup had been, historically, a stronghold of the likes of Malaysia, Indonesia or China. Denmark had sneaked in once while our women’s team with the likes of Saina (Nehwal), Sindhu and Jwala Gutta & Ashwini Ponappa once took the bronze in Uber Cup in 2014. Unlike in the past where our players were not particularly keen in playing the team events, they now believed in themselves and the team spirit among the boys played a huge part in us coming good,’’ Kumar said.
Now that India, in Kumar’s own words, have ‘‘bridged the gap,’’ can they live upto the expectations in the next edition of Thomas Cup in two years’ time? ‘‘I am very hopeful,’’ he said, before adding: ‘‘Lakshya is still very young, the Ritwik-Chirag duo are only around 25 while the senior players like Srikkanth Prannoy will also be around. We can still be a balanced side in two years’ time.’’
Lakshya, who became one of the most talked about young players in the sport over the past year, had been a product of the academy. Asked how will his career pan out in the next couple of years, Kumar said: ‘‘It all depends on how he manages the pressure. He should take care of his body because at this level, it’s not just about training and playing but your eating and sleeping habits - you have to be a professional’’
What next for Saina Nehwal?
An intriguing question, of course, is the longevity of Saina Nehwal’s international career. It was under Kumar’s mentorship that Saina, who had moved base from Hyderabad to Bengaluru midway in last decade, became the world No.1. Now 32 and married to shuttler Parupalli Kashyap for the last five years, Nehwal had been coming down frequently with injuries - raising the question as to how long she can continue her career.
‘‘She has achieved a lot and had been a trendsetter in the popularity of women’s badminton in the country. However, the worrying part is she had been carrying a lot of niggles and the injuries are not being healed properly. I feel that during the Covid period, she could have taken care of the body and come out completely injury-free.
‘‘Saina has the experience of playing big matches and can play fearlessly. I think she is still capabale of notching up some good wins before bowing out,’’ Kumar signed off.
Indian squad for Birmingham
Men: Lakshya Sen, Kidambi Srikanth, Chirag Shetty-Satwiksairaj Rankireddy; B. Sumeeth Reddy.
Women: PV Sindhu, Ashwini Ponnappa, Aakarshi Kashyap, Treesa Jolly, Gayatri Gopichand.