The perfect crosscourt jump smash as he vertically leaps a couple of feet in the air and hit the bird at around 300 km/hr might not be as popular as the helicopter shot played in the sport that is called ‘religion’ in the country, any opponent of Kidambi Srikanth would tell you that the acute angle stroke is equally devastating.
After Sunday's Thomas Cup win, the shot would have the same significance for every badminton fan in the country as it sealed the “World Champions” tag for the Indian men – their first Thomas Cup triumph in the 73-year-old history of the tournament.
And just like cricket's 'Captain Cool', Srikanth befittingly gave the finishing touches to a campaign that saw each and every member of the team give their all with the belief that destiny was on their side.
If the men’s doubles combination of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty laid the foundation for the victories by punching above their weight, Srikanth found an able partner in HS Prannoy to provide the death blow to the opposition’s dream in the quarter-finals and the semi-finals making them the darlings of sports fans back home.
Both Srikanth and Prannoy have been around the international circuit for over a decade now, going through ups and downs of a career that at times made them a darling of fans but more often than not, left their supporters frustrated.
Srikanth's Journey: From Promise to Performance
Srikanth, who mostly focused on doubles as a junior till coach Pullela Gopichand asked him to shift to singles, stormed his way into the international circuit when he upset the legendary Lin Dan in the 2014 China Open to become the first Indian men’s singles player to win a Superseries-level tournament.
He had hopes of a medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics, but went into a shell for months after faltering at the quarter-final stage against Lin Dan, only to emerge from that slump with what was his best year on the circuit. He won five Superseries titles in the year 2017 and was crowned World No 1 for a week in April 2018.
But just when it looked like Srikanth was ready for the big league, a leg injury derailed him. The departure of Indonesian coach Mulyo Handoyo, who had been working with him through 2017, also did not help the 29-year-old’s cause as he slumped into a spiral of self-doubt.
Srikanth is more of an introvert who likes to be within himself, except when he is with his close friends. His performance largely depends on his confidence on his own game and fitness and though he managed to register a few good wins over the last few years, consistency had completely deserted him.
Once a medal hope, he failed to even qualify for Tokyo Olympics 2020 and it probably proved to be a wake-up call for him.
The COVID pandemic induced a break and the presence of Indonesian coach Agus Dwi Santoso helped him regroup and work on his fitness. He showed glimpses of his old self after the badminton season restarted in 2021 but it wasn’t enough to help him break into top-16 of the Road to Tokyo ranking.
However, it was clear even then that the tide was beginning to turn and he ended the year as the first Indian men’s singles shuttler to clinch the World Championships silver medal in Huelva.
He was the favourite to win the India Open 2022 but a positive COVID test forced him to withdraw from the competition. This time, however, he coped with the reversal well and got a few good matches under his belt before flying off with the team to Bangkok for the Thomas Cup.
Srikanth knew that playing the second singles meant that a lot would depend on his performance if India was to entertain any hope of winning a medal as the second doubles wasn’t an event India could bank on and it was important for them to win two of the first three matches.
He was pushed to three games in the group games against Kai Schaefer of Germany and Brian Yang of Canada but looked composed and in control.
Even in the semi-finals when Denmark’s Anders Antonsen fought back to clinch the second game and force a decider, Srikanth showed that he was prepared to play the waiting game when required and never lost sight of his game plan.
The icing on the cake definitely was how he did not let the pressure get the better of him when Asian Games gold medallist Jonathan Christie earned a game point against him in the semi-final. The Indian instead raised the tempo of the rally, went for his trademark strokes to eke out a win and end the 2022 Thomas Cup with an unbeaten 6-0 record.
Prannoy Repaid Selectors' Faith
Prannoy was the other Indian with an unbeaten record throughout the 2022 Thomas Cup, pulling off two sensational victories in do-or-die encounters in the quarter-finals and semi-finals.
The 29-year-old Keralite was always known for his explosive strength and dynamism but lacked consistency due to injuries and also a health problem that would lead to inflammations at unexpected moments.
The first Indian shuttler to win a Youth Olympics silver back in 2010 had, however, been working with experts on figuring out his body and mind, and made specific changes to his diet and learnt to take success and failures in his stride.
The efforts had started showing fruit as he won the 2018 Asian Championships bronze and reached the quarter-finals of the 2020 BWF World Championship, where he lost to eventual champion Loh Kean Yew.
Since then he had been consistently defeating a couple of top players in every tournament because of which the selectors felt that they needed to invest in him for the Thomas Cup given his experience and the ability to play under pressure. They, therefore, exempted him from the trials despite his world ranking being outside the top-15, a cut-off they had decided for direct selection. That allowed Prannoy to take care of a few niggles he had picked through the year and be ready for the tournament.
He was also entrusted with the task of becoming a bridge between all the players and coaches and he, along with Srikanth, went about building the camaraderie and confidence in the team as they could smell a special performance at the Impact Arena.
It was also a redemption of sorts for the duo who had attracted the wrath of the Badminton Association of India when in February 2020 they left the Badminton Asia Team Championship campaign in Manila midway for the Barcelona Spain Masters as they were chasing the Tokyo Olympic berth.
India then lost to Indonesia in the semi-finals 2-3 and the team management said they felt India could have had a chance of winning if the senior pros had stuck around. BAI had then withheld their applications for the Nationals Sports Awards to make a point.
But after what they and the entire team achieved in Bangkok over the last one week, all that can be confined to history as superheroes with a badminton racquet in hand have now vanquished the demons of self-doubt to take India at the top of World Badminton summit.
(Abhijeet Kulkarni has been a journalist for over two decades and has been covering sports since 2003. He has also written a book on the rise of the sport since the turn of the century titled, ‘The Gopichand Factor’)