Kolkata: The euphoria over India’s historic triumph in Thomas Cup, an equivalent of the World Cup in badminton on Sunday, continues unabated - and Prakash Padukone feels it’s fully a justified one. A pathbreaker for the sport in India who was world No.1 and won the All England Championship in 1980, Padukone rates the success in Bangkok at the biggest moment for the sport for India - more than his triumph in England or even P.V.Sindhu’s World Championship in 2018.
‘‘It’s a historic moment - even greater than my All England or Sindhu’s World Championship because it’s the most demanding team event. You need depth in singles and depth in doubles to win the tournament in this new, five-match format. It has not happened overnight but the process has been gradual and we can say India is now a global power in badminton,’’ remarked the man who could be called ‘Mr Badminton’ in a cricket-crazy country.
Speaking to Gulf News during an exclusive interview, Padukone had no qualms of calling Srikanth Kidambi & Co the finest badminton team ever from India. ‘‘It’s not an emotional call from me. Historically speaking, we were generally dependant on one player - be it Nandu Natekar, myself, Syed Modi or Gopichand. I had to play two singles, two doubles in the Thomas Cup and had to win at least three of them. If I lost one, we would lose the tie in the Eighties and it was the same story during Gopi’s time.
Without taking away any of the credit from the likes of Kidambi or Prannoy, I would say that the emergence of the doubles pair of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty tilted the balance in our favour. In the final against Indonesia, the moment they subdued the strong Indonesian pair to make it 2-0, there was tremendous pressure on their n ext singles player Jonathon Christie to keep them in the tie
‘‘However, in last 7-8 years, we first got two good players and then three. Without taking away any of the credit from the likes of Kidambi or Prannoy, I would say that the emergence of the doubles pair of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty tilted the balance in our favour. In the final against Indonesia, the moment they subdued the strong Indonesian pair to make it 2-0, there was tremendous pressure on their next singles player Jonathon Christie to keep them in the tie. He was their match-winner in the last singles in the previous Thomas Cup final but Srikkanth did not give much of a chance,’’ he observed.
The Indian men’s team rode the crest of a wave throughout last week, but the campaign really started getting eyeballs when they pipped traditional powerhouse Malaysia 3-2 to make the semi-finals after 43 years and then made their first final by upstaging Denmark. The last time they made the semis was in 1979, Padukone obviously was at the thick of things and he reminisced: ‘‘Yes, it was in the old best-of-nine format and may be, we made the last four once before in Natekar’s time also. We had beaten Malaysia but then lost to Denmark in semis.’’
Looking ahead, Padukone felt that Thomas Cup would finally be enjoying a pride of place in India’s consciousness from now on - as he felt it was not as widely recognised as Davis Cup of tennis. ‘‘From my interaction with friends and among people, I felt quite a few of them knew about Olympics badminton, All England but not as much of the Thomas Cup. Davis Cup of tennis was relatively a much more popular equivalent...one reason could that we haven’t done too well in the past and often lost in quarter final stage. This time around, people actually started taking note of their performance from the quarters and live coverage has made a big difference,’’ he said.
Padukone, whose Centre of Excellence in Bengaluru had been the grooming ground of a lot of future stars, including young Lakshya Sen - gave a reality check about the level of expectations of people from here onwards. ‘‘Now that they have raised the bar, anything less than retaining the Thomas Cup in two years’ time will not be construed as a good performance. If they had lost the semi-finals this time, it would have been still rated as a good performance,’’ he felt.
The Commonwealth Games is coming up in two months’ time in Birmingham while the Asian Games - which offers a big depth in field - has been postponed from August-September in China due to a resurgence of Covid cases there. ‘‘The Asian Games will offer them a stiff competition as it follows the format of Thomas & Uber Cups with separate events for men and women. All the top countries like China, Indonesia, Japan and South Korea will be there,’’ he said.
Finally, a word about the future of Lakshya Sen, whose progress has been a talking point in the past one year? ‘‘It’s bit of a pressure situation for him after having already got a bronze in his first World Championship last December. He’s young, very disciplined so far and ready to work hard but he has to retain fitness as there will be a lot of tournaments coming up and there will be ups and downs,’’ he signed off.