India’s campaign at the Thomas and Uber Cup Finals in Bangkok came to an early end as both the men’s and women’s teams failed to reach the quarter-finals.

But if there was any silver lining, however faint, it was India’s performance against nine-time Thomas Cup champions China in their final group match. With Kidambi Srikanth and Satwiksairaj Rankireddy / Chirag Shetty rested for the tournament, nobody would have given India a snowball’s chance in hell to get past the Chinese.

While China did end up winning 5-0, the scoreline hardly did any justice to the effort put in by India’s two young doubles pairs – Arjun MR / Shlok Ramchandran and Arun George / Sanyam Shukla – and Lakshya Sen, who took two-time Olympic champion Lin Dan to three games for the second time this month.

When Arjun, 21, and Shlok, 23, walked on to the court for their doubles match against the world No 3 pair from China, India were already down 0-1 after a clearly injured HS Prannoy lost to Olympic champion Chen Long 9-21, 9-21.

A similar rout was expected in the first doubles match, but Arjun and Shlok had other plans as they produced an inspired performance against the world championship gold medallists Zhang Nan and Liu Cheng. Anyone reading just the final score of 21-12, 21-15 to China would think that the 38th-ranked Indian pair was easily beaten, but that was hardly the case.

Television pressure

In a chat with The Field after the China match, Shlok said that he and Arjun were motivated by the criticism they received in the media and on Twitter following their tame surrender against France, when they lost to the 47th-ranked Julien Maio and Bastian Kersaudy in straight games.

“There is no denying that we put in an extremely poor performance and we should not have lost against France, but the amount of criticism we got on Twitter and from the media was pretty bad,” Shlok said. “That kind of motivated us to well against Australia and China.”

Shlok further said that he and Arjun had also failed to read the conditions at the Impact Arena in Bangkok ahead of the France match. He added that the world No 38 pair was also undone by the pressure of playing in front of television cameras for the first time in such a big tournament.

“The AC blowers in the hall were on high power and we could not understand the drift,” said Shlok. Sanyam, who was playing in a tournament of this stature for the first time, concurred: “We were just not able to play our strokes. The shuttle was not connecting properly. It was our first time playing at such a big stadium. Everything was very new for us.” Sanyam and Arun, ranked 70th, lost to world No 103 Thom Gicquel and Ronan Lobar 10-21, 12-21 in just 28 minutes.

Shlok, however, refused to blame the conditions for the defeat. “Credit to the French team, they managed the drift better than us,” he said. “They were mentally stronger, they exploited us. We just froze playing for the first time on TV. We took unnecessary pressure on our heads and just blanked out.”

After the defeat to France, Shlok had apologised to Indian badminton fans via a tweet. The 23-year-old reiterated that, as the senior doubles pair in the team, he and Arjun “take full responsibility” for the defeat.

The Indian team came to Bangkok with the intention of reaching the quarter-finals, but unfortunate injuries along the way also hampered their progress, said Shlok. India’s highest-ranked doubles pair in the team – Manu Attri and Sumeeth Reddy – had to fly back home before playing even a single match as the former injured himself.

Sameer Verma then injured his ankle during the match against France, while Prannoy also struggled with his movement against China. “This is one of the biggest failures we have seen in our short career,” said Shlok. “But to deal with that and come up and stand your ground, to come and perform the next day after a bad performance, that helped our character,” he added.

The turnaround

The Indian team turned it around against Australia, winning 5-0, a day after the France defeat. Then, against China, the team went all out. Despite conceding the tie after the second singles match, which Sai Praneeth lost to world No 3 Shi Yuqi in three games, Sanyam and Arun did not consider their doubles match against world No 4 pair Li Junhui and Liu Yuchen as a dead rubber.

“There was no pressure on us, there was nothing to lose, so we just played all out,” said Sanyam, after he and Arun lost the match 15-21, 22-20, 15-21. “We proved that we belong to that level and we can beat them. We have the game. With some more practice and hard-work we can be at that level.”

Shlok also said that playing four tournaments on the trot from the end of April – the Badminton Asia Championships, New Zealand Open, Australian Open, and Thomas Cup – had taken a toll on their bodies and minds.

“It’s been four weeks on the road for me and Arjun,” he said. “It’s the same with Sai [Praneeth] and Sameer [Verma]. The amount of training we have done in the last six weeks took a toll on us mentally and physically.”

He added, “The quality we showed at the Asian championship – where we beat [world No 25] Chung Eui Seok / Kim DukYoung before losing 11-21, 19-21 to Li Junhui / Liu Yuchen, and in Australia, where we reached the quarters, was missing here. We were slower and mentally more tired.”

Shlok also regretted not taking advantage of putting China’s Zhang Nan and Liu Cheng under pressure at 10-11 in the second game. The same thing had happened earlier in the season, against top pairs such as Kim Astrup / Anders Rasmussen at the India Open, and Li Junhui / Liu Yuchen at the Asian championship, he said.

“When we get really close to these top pairs, we just let them off the hook,” said Shlok. “We again did that [against China]. They were under pressure, but we just gave away loose points. Stroke selection is something we need to work on, but the biggest takeaway was that we are not underdogs anymore.”

As for Sanyam and Arun, who started playing together only in May last year, they are pleased that their partnership is finally yielding results. Sanyam said there are a few things both need to work on. “Arun plays really well on the net, so it’s easy for me to cover him from behind,” he said. “But I need to work on my speed because I am slower than Arun and he has to be more steady on the net so that we can play longer rallies and not get tired.”

Both Indian pairs are now focussing on the two All India ranking tournaments in Bengaluru and Hyderabad next month, which are serving as selection trials for the Asian Games. “This is a big season for us,” said Shlok. “We all want to stake our claim for the Asian Games spot. [World No 18] Chirag and Satwik have done immensely well in the last eight months and have shown it can be done. If they can do it, why can’t we?”

Making it to the Asian Games team is not going to be easy for either of these two pairs, considering Satwik and Chirag are almost certainly going to be on the flight to Jakarta in August but for any injuries. The only way the two pairs can stand a chance of going to Jakarta is if they perform better than their seniors and world No 22 Manu Attri/Sumeeth Reddy at the two selection tournaments.

But considering how Arjun/Shlok and Arun/Sanyam played against China, don’t rule it out.