In April 2018, badminton in India was at an all time high: the Indian team had just won it’s first-ever mixed team Gold at the CWG 2018, the Women’s Singles event at the same Games featured the dream final of PV Sindhu vs Saina Nehwal. The two women had both won medals at the 2017 World Championships a few months earlier, which was India’s best ever showing at the time. Kidambi Srikanth had been crowned World No. 1, the first ever Indian male badminton player to do so since the modern ranking system came into being. At one point, there were as many as 5 Indians in the Top 20 of the Men’s Singles World Rankings.
Forward to January 2020 and during an Olympic year the sport finds itself at a crossroads. Even as the PBL is about to begin, Indian badminton is probably facing it’s biggest crisis since the time Saina burst on to the scene as a 17-year old. The Indonesia Masters showing is just the most recent example of the malaise that has been creeping into the game in the past few months. The woes in MS have been discussed. In WS and doubles too the performances have been disappointing since the World Championships. A few other problems have also been mentioned earlier, but now would be a good time to take a deeper look.
Lack of Quality Coaching
Much has been written and said in praise about Pullela Gopichand, and rightly so. But the problem is that Gopi is one of the very few world-class coaches in India. And in a vast country like ours, it is not possible for one person to manage an entire sport. There is clearly a need for other coaches to step up. The federation and Gopi himself need to encourage this, for instance set up training programs for coaches from different parts of the country. The best example is from shooting, where former greats like Gagan Narang, Suma Shirur and Joydeep Karmakar have helped unearth top class shooters from places as varied as Gujarat, Himachal and West Bengal. Reports of a rift between Gopi and India’s other all-time-great Prakash Padukone too do not help matters.
With Gopi overburdened and there being a dearth of top-level alternatives in India, the BAI invited foreign coaches to train India’s best players. And there were immediate results: Indonesian Mulyo Handoyo coached Srikanth into reaching the top of the BWF World Rankings, and Korea’s Kim Ji Hyun helped Sindhu become the World Champion for the first time. Both however left abruptly in the middle of their tenure, citing ‘personal reasons’ and joined other countries soon after.
Srikanth’s form has been in a free fall since Mulyo’s departure. Kim recently made a controversial remark on Sindhu by calling her ‘heartless’, a jibe which the latter’s father has vehemently opposed. In a worrying pattern, the national doubles coach Flandy Limpele too has cited the ‘bad attitude’ of a few players. Evidently, all is not well when it comes to player-coach relations.
No Junior Program
PV Sindhu won the Asian Junior Championships in 2012. Since then no Indian WS shuttler has won a medal at either the Asian or the World Juniors. In MS too only Lakshya Sen has shown the potential of becoming a future top 10 player, while the likes of Siril Verma are yet to find their feet. And the less said about doubles the better, with the exception of the MD pair of Satwik-Chirag .
Almost all the top badminton players in the world today had a stellar career at the junior level. So there being a paucity of exceptional juniors from a country the size of India should be a cause of concern. Again this problem is related to a lack of access to top-class coaches and support staff.
Over the last decade, the Government, the federation and the private sector have invested heavily into Indian badminton. This has without doubt ensured the growth of the sport in the country. But perhaps the funding has become too top heavy. Do superstars who have numerous sponsors and whose names appear in the world’s top paid athletes list really need extra money from the Govt’s TOPS scheme? Shouldn’t the money be invested into youngsters like Tasnim Mir and Meiraba Luwang instead?
India would not have become the U-19 Champions had the BCCI ignored the juniors and invested only on Kohli and Dhoni. The BAI needs to learn a lesson from the NRAI’s revolutionary junior program. If the less popular sport of shooting can afford to prioritize on youngsters, why can’t badminton do the same?
Modern badminton is an ever-evolving sport. It has become more physically demanding than ever. Srikanth has admitted that the game has changed a lot from even a couple of years ago. Strategies that worked in the past may not work today. Judging from recent results, it seems that the Indian shuttlers have not kept pace with the changing trends of the sport. Lack of fitness is an issue, with a number of losses having come in matches extending to three games.
There should be a re-look at the fitness training and nutrition regime of the players. Better video analyst inputs are also required. Above all, the staff, coaches and federation should ensure player discipline.
Mental health is one of the most relevant topics in the world today. Sports stars are no different; cricketers such as Glenn Maxwell and Virat Kohli have publicly spoken about their mental health issues. Abhinav Bindra has admitted feeling burnt out after his heroics at the Beijing Olympics.
The life of an international athlete is both physically and mentally demanding. In a country like India where only a chosen few become the ‘one in a billion’ by reaching the elite level in a sport, the pressure to win medals and tournaments can be enormous. Most athletes are in their teens and twenties and may lack the maturity to handle both success and failure with equanimity.
Some Indian shuttlers have shown signs of being de-motivated and disinterested through their on-court body language. A qualified sports psychologist can address such issues better than a coach. Members of the World Cup winning Indian cricket team have mentioned how much the services of a mental conditioning expert benefited them. It is time for Indian badminton players to follow their cricketing counterparts.
The use of the now-ironic hashtag #IndiaOnTheRise by the BAI’s Twitter handle has been mocked and criticized by Indian fans on the social network. The @BAI_Media handle in general shows how out of touch the officials are with realities.
It must be said that the sport was better managed during the tenure of Akhilesh Das Gupta and the federation has lacked strong leadership since his demise. Yet again, the administration of badminton is a sharp contrast to that of shooting under Raninder Singh.
In medicine, the prodromal period of an illness is when the patient shows non-specific signs and symptoms, just before the onset of the full-blown clinical phase. If the decline of a sport can be compared to a disease, then it appears Indian badminton has just entered the latter phase. And now it is up to the federation and the sports ministry to provide solutions and prevent an exacerbation.