A cluster of fans, players, coaches and officials started to assemble along the sidelines of Court 1 in the badminton hall of the Balewadi Sports Complex in February at the 84th Senior National Badminton Championships. Srikanth was in action, but the crowd had actually come to watch in awe how his 20-year-old opponent Maisnam Meiraba Luwang had been hassling and harrying the former world No 1.

On paper, Srikanth was well expected to walk away with a comfortable win in the second round match early last month. Instead, the 30-year-old was being stretched and frustrated by the youngster from Imphal. Eventually it took Srikanth all of his experience of playing at the highest level of the sport to come up with a 21-19, 18-21, 21-17 win in a match that lasted 68 minutes. That too against a player who comes from a state that has no rich culture in the sport, yet.

But this wasn’t the only big mark Maisnam made in Pune. A few days earlier, he was a part of the Manipuri team that punched above its weight and finished runners-up in the team Inter State-Inter Zonal National Championships.

The reason for such a sudden wave of success though was simple.

“Lots of Manipuris have started to go outside Manipur – some to Bangalore, some Hyderabad. So they’re getting to train under better facilities. That is the main reason,” explained Maisnam in the mixed zone after his match against Srikanth.

“I may have influenced it a little bit. I first left in 2012 to play in an Under-13 ranking event in Bangalore at the Prakash Padukone Academy. We saw what that place was like and my father requested if I could be trained there. They had a 21-day camp and I got selected. I’ve been there since 2013.”

Maisnam paved a path for Manipuris to start building up in the sport. There was surprise as the team from North East steadily made their way to the final in the Team Championships – the first time they had gotten that far in the competition. But there was no real reason for there to have been any element of underestimation. Afterall, their players are rather well known across academies in the more prominent badminton hubs of the country.

“Academy coaches from around India come to the Junior Nationals and watch our players and then select them for their centres,” said RK Sunanda Singh, the coach of the Manipuri team in Pune, to Scroll.

“It’s better for the players because they get to train in bigger academies that have the facilities to make strong players. Because of that, we have to make sure the players have a very solid foundation. It’s almost like how in football, Manipuri players are scouted by big clubs. Similar thing is happening in badminton now.”

The indoor-sport is a relatively new game in Manipur, and it did take a while for people to take it up given the expenses required to play at a high level.

“The thing is that people cannot afford it. For example, a tube of shuttlecocks will cost maybe 250-350, but then each shuttle lasts 4-5 rallies. That’s why people take up sports like boxing, football, martial arts, sepak takraw. They’re comparatively cheaper,” Singh added.

“But Manipuris are an ideal fit for the sport. Our people are generally smaller, but have explosive movement and quickness in the feet. They’re very fit.”

Changing tide

A growing wave of people taking up the sport in Manipur has been recognised by the state government, whom Singh asserted has increased investment to build badminton-specific venues over the past three years.

However, the likes of Maisnam, the men’s doubles team of Dingku Singh Konthoujam and Manjit Singh Khwairakpam (seventh in the domestic rankings) and women’s doubles player Priya Devi Konjengbam (ranked No 2 domestically) – all a part of the team that finished runners-up in Pune – grew up playing the sport in the indoor stadium inside the Khuman Lampak Sports Complex.

The venue houses three badminton courts, but there’s a catch.

“We have to split training time with table tennis, taekwondo, gymnastics…,” lists W Amusana Meitei, the team manager.

“Through the association we try to book spots, schedule training times. For working on the physical fitness aspect there’s not much worry because we can do a lot of training outside. The thing is we don’t have many places to play apart from this one right now. Like in Maharashtra, there are stadiums in all districts, but not for us. Everyone has to come to Imphal and train on those three courts.”

(L to R) W Amusana Meitei, RK Sunanda Singh, and Meiraba Luwang Maisnam (Special arrangement)

But there is hope that the paucity of training facilities will not last long. Singh and Meitei mentioned that there are already a few stadiums under construction – a part of the state government’s initiative in promoting the sport.

And with it comes the hope that there will be many more like Maisnam who will put on a show when facing the likes of Srikanth across the net. And perhaps, go even a step beyond.

“A lot of people in Manipur now know and play badminton,” added Maisnam.

“They’ve started to think that they can do it, they have that belief.”

Indeed, the youngster too exuded confidence despite the loss.

“I thought I would win and I trained hard for it. I was there, stayed in the match,” he said, with a smile.

“But I’ll keep in mind (how the match went) and train for it.”

For the next time.

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