Editor’s note: Shlok Ramchandran is a former Indian doubles player, who reached a career-high world ranking of No 32 in men’s doubles. Having recently retired from the highest level of the sport, Shlok is currently head coach at Triangle Badminton & Table Tennis in North Carolina, USA. In his column, Shuttle Zone, he discusses the issue of drift in badminton and how to tackle it.

While watching PV Sindhu’s title win at the Singapore Open 2022, there was a serious discussion on Twitter in the badminton circles about drift and the impact of it in a match from a tactical point of view. I also got a call from a promising young women’s singles shuttler who struggled with coming to terms with the drift and wanted my view on how to tackle it. And the other day while coaching, I got the same question from one of the parents of a student of mine who has very recently started watching a lot of world tour badminton as his son has developed a keen interest in the sport.

My answer to Mr. Saha was that drift/draughts has been there for a very long time but we are only talking about it now as the viewership of world badminton has had a significant rise in the past 10 years. So his question was: how did I tackle it as a player and how will I tackle it now as a coach?

I wondered. Is badminton, so to speak, drifting apart?

Before answering the young shuttler and Mr. Saha’s question, let’s understand some details about drift.

Drifts or draughts is caused by strong air conditioning and currents that arise when hot, humid air enters from open doors and meets colder air inside an arena.

Here’s what the BWF Specifications For International Standard Facilities says:

via BWF Statutes

What to expect with drift/draughts?

Drifts can swirl in from the side, above and below. They can stop and start or blast away steadily, and do funny things to the feathery badminton shuttle, causing a shot that should have landed in to land out or vice versa.

There are two main kinds of drift to deal with, one is the side to side drift... especially if you’re playing on the corner courts. I remember struggling on my first time playing the Singapore open which has vents right at the corner of the stadium.

The other one is the kind which makes one end of the court faster where the drift pushes the shuttle out on length. This means the other end becomes the slower end where the drift pulls back the shuttle on length.

Players generally prefer the slower end as the game can be opened up. You can hear the faster end termed as the ‘bad side/end’, at least that’s how my teammates and I called it.

At the BWF World Tour tournaments held in Europe there is barely any air conditioning used as the temperature most likely is normal even inside arenas. But it’s different when World Tour tournaments are held in Asia where it can be significantly hotter outside. Simply turning off the air conditioning doesn’t work because sweat on the racket, in the eyes, on the floor can be as big a problem as drift.

For example, the Singapore open had an average daily temperature around 31 degrees celsius plus high level of humidity, which is why there is a need to regulate the temperature inside the stadium. Whereas the weather in the UK during the All England had an average high and low of 15 and 9 degrees respectively and hence you would see longer rallies as both ends are slower.

While there are other factors for this, one metric that backs this up is that the average match duration of the Singapore open was significantly lesser than the All England this year.

(Statistics courtesy: badmintonstatstics.net)

All England Open 2022

Category Matches Avg Match Duration Avg Points / Minute
MD 31 00:46:15 1.95
MS 29 00:49:19 1.68
WD 29 00:52:37 1.65
WS 29 00:38:33 1.97
XD 31 00:43:00 1.94
Total 149 00:45:55 1.83

Singapore Open 2022

Category Matches Avg Match Duration Avg Points / Minute
MD 31 00:37:41 2.25
MS 31 00:48:02 1.77
WD 28 00:39:26 1.98
WS 29 00:42:04 2.01
XD 29 00:38:04 2.18
Total 148 00:41:07 2.02

Playing with the drift

In my opinion, it’s probably one of the toughest things to execute in world badminton. As the drift is taking the shuttle out on length, players move into an all downward-shots mode where essentially they barely use clears or lifts. This gives a chance for the opponent to step in a little more and take control of the net.

Players, at the toss, tend to start from the tougher end so that they could end up with the good side post interval mid-way if the match does to a decider.

The upside is that the smashes get a little more zip through the air from the faster end. In doubles, defending becomes a challenge as players shift more into a no lift mode which requires a lot of control. This is also why Indonesian doubles players don’t really struggle with the drift in Asian World Tour events as they are one of the best in the no-lifting style of play.

Playing against the drift

The drawback of playing against the drift is executing the softer shots, especially if you’re playing a softer defensive block or playing slower drop as drift might slow it down further. But apart from that its always the favourable side as your game opens up a lot more and you could afford to clear and lift frequently than when playing with the drift where the game style tends to become a little monotonous.

Playing with the sideways drift

Again this one is tricky but also one which you learn with experience. The one thing which worked for me was the coaches behind me constantly informing on the direction of the sideways drift (left to right or right to left). If the drift is from left to right for a right hander, aiming close to the centre of the court and being conservative on the backhand corner is probably the key. But then it opens up the forehand side of the court where the drift pulls the shuttle in and the player can take lot more risks compared to the other side.

In my opinion Saina Nehwal is probably the best at managing the sideways drift as she would very cleverly use the drift to go close or away to the side-lines. Her match against Sindhu at the Nagpur National Championships a few years back was a masterclass on how to deal with sideways drift.

The debate

The debate on Twitter started with a trend happening in recent tournaments... players starting off from the good end, losing the second game usually by a somewhat big margin when moving to the tougher end if they do not get off to a good start after winning the first, then going all out in game three.

Veteran commentator Steen Pedersen recently suggested a mid-game change of ends interval rather than the traditional change of ends after the finishing the first two games. ‘Voice of badminton’ Gill Clark backed Steen’s idea during commentary at Singapore Open.

I think it will affect the timeline of the matches as change of ends generally takes longer than the mid-game interval and with BWF already being concerned with lengthy duration of the matches, Steen’s idea might not work out. The counter idea is where a player stays at an end for one and a half games and then switching but then we are assuming that all games are going to end up in a decider.

My take on this as a player and a coach is that every sport has its own set of challenges, that’s what makes every sport challenging and unique. As I said earlier drift has been a part of the sport for a very long time now and player across generations have coped with it successfully. The players need to get used to it especially if the matches are going to be in Asia as from personal experience there is minimum drift in the European circuit. The Badminton world has far more bigger problems which needs solving rather than tinkering with the rules due to drift.

How do you prepare for it?

One of the things Team India has been doing before major event is practicing at the bigger Gachibowli Stadium in Hyderabad and using the air conditioning to get the players accustomed to playing with the drift. It also takes time and the more experience one gets on the tour, they’ll get better at it. At the end of the day the conditions are the same for both the players and there is no point of over thinking about things which are not in your control.

I completely empathise with the players as the conditions are getting tougher by the day and to comment/advice from outside the court is easy. But the only way forward is for the coaching teams to come up with solutions to make it easier for the player to adapt on the go.

So to answer my own question, is badminton drifting apart? In my humble opinion, not at all. But maybe we as badminton fans need to drift apart from the subject of drift and let the players and support staff learn to cope with it.