The Badminton Association of India on Saturday announced its decision to allow players ranked among world’s top-50 a direct entry into the last 16 of the Senior Nationals to be held in Nagpur next month.

The sport’s governing body in India has been contemplating ways to get the country’s top shuttlers to play the Nationals and had already announced an increase in the total prize money to around Rs 1 crore to attract the likes of Saina Nehwal, PV Sindhu and K Srikanth while making it mandatory for everyone to play the championship.

The tournament circular issued on September 15, however, puts the total prize money at Rs 50 lakh as against the Rs 1 crore announced by BAI president Himanta Biswa Sarma. It can always be revised at the discretion of BAI and the organisers.

According to the circular, eight players among the world’s top-50 will be given a direct entry in the pre-quarterfinals in men’s and women’s singles, while four pairs in men’s, women’s and mixed doubles will start their campaign in the quarters.

Questionable logic

While the increased prize money and better facilities to players were welcome steps in bringing back the glory of Nationals, it is difficult to fathom the logic or the long-term benefits of the decision to give these players a direct entry in the business end of the tournament.

It is a fact that the Nationals have little significance with regard to team selection for major tournaments ever since the Badminton World Federation started giving entries only on the basis of international ranking points. With players winning bigger international titles, the tag of national champion has also ceased to be a drawing card for players.

BAI officials have been contemplating ways to make the top stars play in the flagship event. A few officials had even made an argument to not fund players who do not participate in the Nationals. However, there has been no consensus on the matter since the decision makers fear that the top players may get support from the government and fans, and end up showing the association in bad light.

In a meeting with Sarma in Hyderabad recently, India’s top badminton players spoke about shorter duration of Nationals, better courts and basic facilities. While this upgradation for the most prestigious domestic event was long overdue, there is a certain decorum to every tournament and giving any player a direct entry at a later stage goes against the essence of the championship itself.

The Nationals, just like the World Championships of any sport, is considered to be a stage where the challengers get a chance to face off against players they once looked up to and even do the unthinkable by beating them.

That is precisely why the first-round victory of journeyman Brice Leverdez over second seed and title contender Lee Chong Wei in the BWF World Championships in Glasgow earlier this year would always remain as fresh in the memory of every badminton fan as the epic women’s singles final between Sindhu and Japan’s Nozomi Okuhara.

No more underdog stories

The Nationals also provide an opportunity to the BAI to unearth new talent and give the youngsters the confidence that they can challenge the best. Even Nehwal, who hasn’t played the Nationals since her second title in 2007, would speak about how a win over India’s then shuttle queen Aparna Popat in an Asian Satellite tournament in New Delhi gave her the confidence that she could take on the world.

The Nationals have been replete with stories of underdogs turning the tables on their more illustrious opponents. Nobody had heard the name of Shreyansh Jaiswal before the shuttler from Chattisgarh upset defending champion Sourabh Verma in the second round in Srinagar. In the last edition, Lakshya Sen stunned world number 15 HS Prannoy in the round of 16 in what was the youngster’s first ever Senior Nationals.

Even in the past, the legendary Prakash Padukone made it a point to play every Nationals tournament despite moving to Denmark for training. And it was his loss in the quarterfinals of the 1980 edition in Vijaywada that gave India a rising star called Syed Modi.

But more than the romance of an underdog beating the established stars, BAI’s decision makes one believe that the players now are probably bigger than the system and that the governing body is willing to go to any length to please the top stars.

As things stand now, the other eight players making it to the pre-quarterfinals would have played four matches in two days before facing off against the top stars, who will have the benefit of being fresh for the challenge.

Sources said the an event organised by equipment sponsors Yonex in Mumbai on November 4, which all top players are expected to attend, could be another reason behind making this arrangement. The organisers were initially looking to hold the event on November 1 but unavailability of a venue forced them to move it to November 4 at the National Sports Club of India.

BAI had therefore already postponed the Nationals by a day. It will now start on November 2 and end on November 8 with the top players reaching Nagpur on November 5 and begin their campaign the next day.

If that is true, then we can just hope that the direct entry formula is dumped immediately after this edition. Instead, BAI can look at stringent qualifying norms and bring down the singles draw size from 256 to even 64 to ensure that players don’t end up playing too many matches in a week.

And if the top players still don’t play then just accept the inevitable and find another way to make the Senior Nationals relevant.