The wait has been long for Indian badminton – never before in the history of the Thomas Cup in its current avatar had the men’s team reached the semi-finals or finished on the podium. The three semi-finals or equivalent finishes had come in the 1950s and 1979. And when that decades-long wait was about to come to an end on Thursday night, the Indian squad in Bangkok stood patiently, evidently nervous, beyond the cameras and advertising boards at the Impact Arena.
HS Prannoy was well ahead in the match against Leong Jun Hao 21-13, 20-8 after around 38 minutes of action. They had no reason to look nervous at that point. And once the match was sealed, that tensed look gave way to an outburst of emotion.
Prannoy’s win, following that of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy-Chirag Shetty and Srikanth Kidambi earlier in the tie, gave India a 3-2 win against a strong Malaysian team which topped their group after a brilliant win against Japan. When his teammates and support staff, the former significantly faster than the latter obviously, made their way to Prannoy, it was a moment, a celebration, they have all waited for. And in an edition where there were expectations around them, it was vindication.
“I think it’s a lot of emotions. It’s one tournament where I think we have never done well in the past,” Prannoy said in the BWF Mixed Zone at the end of a long night.
“There’s a lot of reasons (for that) but this time, I think it was one of the best Indian teams to come into Thomas Cup. Look at the team, everybody is stepping up and everybody wants to prove a point. I think that’s very important because this is for the next generation to come from India. We all want them to see that we are right up there in the world and especially in a team event, you always write off India but this time, we said that we are just going to fight until the end, no matter what.”
That sense of unity has come through right from the start of this event for the Indian men’s team. From their posts on Instagram after landing in Bangkok, through team outings in the Thai city and the cheering from the stands – where even Srikanth, the old man of this team, was egging on Lakshya Sen by blowing through a small plastic horn - they have wanted to do it for each other.
At the start of this tie, Lakshya battled hard in the early stages of his match against against Lee Zii Jia. But the Malaysian superstar was out for revenge for his All England defeat and bulldozed through the second game to give his side the lead. There was no panic in the Indian ranks though, as the team just needed one point from the first two matches to realistically have a chance in the tie.
For Satwik-Chirag however, there was an additional responsibility. It was not just about winning a point for the team, it was about making a statement that their recent indifferent form was not going to hold them back in a big match. Individually and collectively, the duo knew they had to step up.
“Definitely, it was an important match for us. Just for us personally, not just the team,” Satwik said after they had defeated Goh Sze Fei and Nur Izzuddin, one of the red-hot men’s doubles pairs on the circuit at the moment.
“We were struggling [in recent times], we wanted that rhythm back... just wanted to give 100% and see what happens. We won the first game, got a little confident and then we went all out. It’s a crucial point for the team, maybe if Srikanth can pull it off... it’s a great chance. Happy with the way we played.”
Chirag, who had a sore throat from all the roaring he did on court said, “It was really important for us, as you saw out there. The match against Taipei wasn’t that great for us when we lost to Lee-Wang, so we really wanted to pull this one through. The way we played right from the first point, really energetic and we wanted this win.”
Srikanth followed that up with a magnificent performance and when he was speaking after the match, he must have felt confident the tie was in the bag.
That was because of Lakshya’s rise as the No 1 in India has made the experienced Srikanth and HS Prannoy their second and third options - that is the sort of depth and quality that will be the envy of any team in such events. And more importantly, they also had a world class doubles pair in their squad now.
“Individually all of us have done well in the last six months,” former World No 1 Srikanth said after his win against Ng Tze Yong. “Now it was just very important for all of us to be focussed, to be consistent, to win the match we play and forget the result. Just want to play our best. I know this is a team event, when we come here as a team in the past we haven’t consistently done well. At least in the Uber Cup, the women have done extremely well [in the past]. But we have reached quarters before but couldn’t really perform on the day, this time we really want to do well. That’s it.”
Prannoy’s medal-deciding match was off to a rather nervy start. The pressure was immense on both teams at that point, and it showed as the Malaysian contingent in the arena made their presence felt even across Indian television screens.
“There was a lot of pressure in the start. In the first nine points, I was struggling,” Prannoy said later. “And there were a lot of Malaysians out there supporting and I think that made a difference in the first nine points. But once I got that flow and I got to know what I need to do, I think I was playing really well today. Second game, I knew there was no chance for him because I just got into that zone, I just knew I’m not going to leave this chance. I was really determined and I just wanted it for the team. And I know how badly this win means to all of us and I just wanted to win for them.”
That sort of mentality of winning for each other has, crucially, happened organically.
“We didn’t really have to do anything different,” Srikanth said about the team gelling together. “All the other players in the squad... very young, energetic, enthusiastic. All of them want to get on court, and do really well and win that one point for India. The team spirit is definitely high, just have to play well when we get on court.”
Prannoy, visibly still letting this moment sink in, also looked at the bigger picture in the end.
“We just want to prove to the younger batch saying, ‘You have to dream and these kinds of wins will come. We just need to work.’ Team events are just different and there needs to be a big time unity there. No negative talks in the team. That is one thing that has changed drastically this year. It’s just positive energy in this group and you can just see it on the court. Everybody just wants to win it for others, not just for themselves. So, that’s very nice to see and I hope every year, we can come like this and challenge for the title.”
Prannoy also shifted his focus to the task ahead quickly to echo what Lakshya posted on his social media accounts, “we are team India, and we are not done yet.”
“Really happy, but I think we have much more work to do,” Prannoy signed off. “We have a semi-final in hand. We’ll have a little bit of a celebration but we just need to be under control and we just need to focus on that match.”