When Agus Dwi Santoso quit the Thailand badminton team in February this year, chief national coach Pullela Gopichand was quick to get in touch with the Indonesian to try and convince him to join the national setup in India.

The coaching team had been short of quality hands ever since Kim Ji Hyun left abruptly in September last year and that showed in the way the team had been performing ever since the dual success at the 2019 World Championship in Basel, Switzerland.

Theoretically, Santoso is the perfect fit for the Indian national camp set up as he has worked for two years with current foreign coach Park Tae Sang in South Korea where they successfully helped Son Wan Ho reach the World No. 1 ranking. Being an Indonesian, he is also well versed with the coaching style of Mulyo Handoyo, whose one year stint with the Indian team saw Srikanth Kidambi winning five Superseries titles in a year and Sai Praneeth clinching the Singapore Open crown.

Also read: Why foreign badminton coaches are quitting Indian team before their contract ends

Gopichand has insisted that Santoso’s appointment is for the long term but Badminton Association of India officials have been pretty clear that the Indonesian’s primary target is to ensure that India grabs both the Olympic spots in singles events and then targets podium finishes in Tokyo.

Santoso reached India when most of the top Indian players were still in Birmingham for the All England and were supposed to return after playing the Swiss Open Super 300 event. This meant that the Indonesian would have had to find ways of motivating Srikanth, Sai, HS Prannoy and others to raise the bar till the end of the Tokyo Olympics qualification period... without changing their training system too much.

But with the Badminton World Federation suspending all competitions until April 12 in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, all the players are now back in Hyderabad and were eager to start training.

However, the Telengana government has now ordered all training centres and public spaces to shut down and that means that the Gopichand Academy and the national camp are shut till March 31 and training will only start after that.

The players may work on their fitness during this period with whatever equipment they have at home. But as and when they do report for training at the academy, the coaches will have the dual job of ensuring that they reach peak match fitness and also plot strategies for them to start winning from the first outing they have after the break.

The real challenge for Santoso and Park along with Gopichand will be to find ways to keep the players, especially those who have lagged behind in the race to Tokyo, engaged and motivated during these uncertain times.

Saina Nehwal and Srikanth failed to win enough ranking points at the All England and that can hurt their qualification chances, while Prannoy and the Sourabh and Sameer Verma have a big wall to climb to get back in contention.

Indonesian coach Agus Dwi Santoso (center) poses with compatriots Herry Iman Pierngadi (left) and Mulyo Handoyo (right). (Instagram/@herry_ip)

The only way two Indian singles shuttlers can qualify in both men’s and women’s discipline is if they are both in the world top-16 as on April 30, 2020 according to the current qualification system.

The BWF is yet to decide on whether the qualification period will be extended before the last week of April and what will happen to the three Super 500, one Super 750 and one Super 300 level tournaments that these players could have played till the first list of qualifiers was announced.

Given the way Indian systems work, it takes time for new coaches to win the confidence of the players and make them come out of their comfort zone before being able to push them in training. When Handoyo brought in the changes in 2017, he had the luxury of allowing the players to fail as the stakes were not as high as they are now.

It was precisely why Nehwal had refused to work with Kim when the South Korean had joined the camp because the former world No 1 did not want to disturb her training regime and try something new given all her injury concerns.

PV Sindhu and B Sai Praneeth would probably be more open to any changes as they are almost guaranteed a seat on the flight to Tokyo if the Games are held on time and they can start looking forward.

But for the rest, it’s going to be a fight till the end. And given the low confidence levels of most of these shuttlers, Santoso’s primary job would be to find ways to get the best out of them in the short time he has in his hands to prove himself.

When Santoso quit the Thailand team, the country’s first men’s singles world championship medallist Kantaphon Wangcharoen paid tribute to the coach for helping his create history last year. “You gave me a lesson that changed my life. It’s not about coach and player. You were always besides me through good times and bad. You taught me a lot, not only badminton, but also life,” he was quoted as saying.

The Indonesian has also been instrumental in the rise of Busanan Ongbamrungphan in the last one year. Santoso has the experience of producing world and Olympic medallists and Gopichand clearly believes that he can do the same in India.

But before he can think of all that, Santoso would have to prove himself by producing a quick turnaround in the performance of the top Indian men’s singles players and in the current scenario, that could boil down to purely his motivational skills.