The team led by coach Vimal Kumar were seeded fifth at the beginning of the tournament.
Indians have done well in Badminton in recent years. We had medals in all the major tournaments in the recent past, except the three major team events. India has had champions like Prakash Padukone, Pullela Gopichand, PV Sindhu and Saina Nehwal dominating the singles events. However, the group never really looked strong enough to challenge for a medal in the Thomas Cup, the Uber Cup, and the Sudirman Cup.
And so, when India were to start their campaign of the Thomas and the Uber Cup 2022, even though we had a strong contingent, not many would have placed their bets on any of the two teams coming back as the World Champions. India were not even the favourites for a medal if we are to be honest. The men’s team were the fifth-best on paper as per seedings and were in Pot 2 of the four pots. They had no business playing in the finals.
But the Indian team did the unthinkable, and we tried to look at the historic run of the men’s team.
Good recent form
As aforementioned, Indians have won medals in almost all major tournaments in the recent past. When the selection trials began for the Thomas Cup 2022, Commonwealth Games 2022 and the Asian Games 2022, the men’s team already had some of the available slots filled. Lakshya Sen, Kidambi Srikanth, H.S. Prannoy, and the doubles pair of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty had their berths booked owing to either being in top-15 in world rankings or going through a purple patch.
Kidambi Srikanth and Lakshya Sen won medals in the BWF World Championships 2021. While the former had to settle for a silver after losing to Singaporean Loh Kean Yew, the latter lost to his Indian compatriot in the semifinals and won a bronze in his debut at the Worlds. Lakshya Sen also reached the finals of the All England Open Championship in March 2022, where he lost to World no. 1 Viktor Axelsen.
H.S. Prannoy also had an appearance in the final of the Swiss Open 2022. Satwik Sairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty came into the Thomas Cup team after an impressive 2021 and as the winners of the Indian Open 2022.
Winning against the odds
Indians were never the favourites to win the Thomas Cup. The tournament pitted us against some of the toughest opponents a team could have faced. The Indian team were the favourites to finish in the two qualifying positions from the group. But from there on, with every game the Indians played, the odds were more against them.
In the quarterfinal encounter, Lakshya Sen competed against World no. 6. The semi-final had four of the five games of Indians against players ranked above World no. 15. The Danish team had World no. 1 Viktor Axelsen, World no. 3 Anders Antonsen and World no. 13 Rasmus Gemke play the singles for them. One of the two Danish doubles teams is ranked World no. 9
The final was against the record 14-time champions Indonesia. All the three games Indians played in the final of the Thomas Cup had them as the second-best when going into the match, based on the world rankings.
Playing through the pain
To play against a superior opponent and to beat him is no small feat in a semifinal of the World Men’s Team Championship. But to do that while playing through an injury makes the win taste even sweeter. H.S. Prannoy has had a fantastic outing as he, along with Kidambi Srikanth, won all these games in the championship.
What is even more impressive about H.S. Prannoy’s feat is that he always had to play the final game when winning the tie was on him, with the two teams tied 2-2. While playing against Rasmus Gemke of Denmark, Prannoy was in pain due to an ankle injury. But the shuttler fought back against his pain and the Danish player to force a comeback after losing the first set to win the rest two and the tie for his country.
Even India’s best men’s player Lakshya Sen started the tournament with a food poisoning condition that somewhat affected his game. However, Sen won his games when it mattered the most as a champion does.
Absence of the fans
While the shuttlers were busy scripting history, there were very few talks in the country about what was happening in Bangkok, Thailand. In fact, the players had no support whatsoever from the Indian diaspora living in the South East Asian country.
Absence of the fans in the stadium when fighting against all the odds to win hurt the players. After and before every win, the players had to appeal to the Indians to show up and support their team when they played in crucial matches.
After winning the game against Malaysia in the quarterfinal, H.S. Prannoy tweeted his disappointment over the issue. He said he believed the game was happening in Malaysia after seeing the number of Malaysians turning up to see their champions play. The trend continued as not many Indians showed up for the latter stages of the competition.
Weight of history
It is not every day that a team beats Indonesia or Malaysia in the Thomas Cup, a competition they have won a record number of times. And the Indian team had to play both and Denmark, another team that had previously won the competition.
India’s win was its first-ever, and we became the only sixth side country to win the prestigious tournament. Before the win, the furthest any Indian team could ever go were the semifinals. India has played three semifinals before the 2022 edition of the Thomas Cup. They came in 1952, 1955 and 1979 – the editions where the format had no team winning the bronze medals.
The Indian team has 11 appearances in the Thomas Cup. The Indonesians have won it a record 14 times. That should tell one how big achievement is winning the Thomas Cup against the Indonesians in the finals.
A bright future
Not very long ago, P.V. Sindhu talked about how the gulf between her and Saina Nehwal and the rest of the talents from the country was large, but how quickly the youngsters now have caught up with them. The very fact that someone as young as Lakshya Sen already has medals in World Championships, All England Open Championship and now Thomas Cup at just 20 years of age tells how far we have come in the sport.
Viren Rasquinha, a pioneer in some of the talent development programs in the country, tweeted how there weren’t many shuttlers representing the country in Olympics during his hockey playing days, and now we have won the Thomas Cup.
Players like Lakshya Sen, Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty are young. But they shouldn’t be the only top talents we have for the next decade. Players like Kidambi Srikanth, B. Sai Praneeth and H.S. Prannoy will in a few years have to be replaced by younger talents. And this is where programs like TOPS would be essential.