It was all light-hearted banter, but the nibble of a bite to the undertone was unmistakable when Danish singles veteran, Hans Kristian Vittinghus cackled to Kidambi Srikanth on Instagram: “Very nice to know you left Lakshya at home” commenting on Team India’s landing picture in Bangkok for the Thomas Cup. This was May 5, and the Indian men’s team dressed in identical team uniforms at the airport, albeit minus Sen, had been upbeat: “On a mission” as Srikanth captioned.
The friendly snipe from the Danish No.4 singles player was about whiffs of past friction in the Indian team where the shuttlers training in Hyderabad, did not get along with the Bangalore bunch, and Sen had even missed out after the last trials – omitted after losing a match when ill. News travels and news of acrimony mutates and flies faster. But Srikanth played it downward and steep, responding with a grinning emoji: “he reached before everyone.”
News of India’s team, bonding well before the team event and the No.2 piping up for the No 1 spearhead, wasn’t exactly music to opponents. “Damn, that’s not good news (for the rest of us)” Vittinghuus continued in a lighter vein.
A good sport, the Dane admitted after his country went out 3-2 to India in the semis, that his exchange had aged well. But there was no denying the edge of a rivalry between the two Thomas Cup teams – Denmark having won in 2016 and India the absolute dark horses, yet predicted by those who followed the sport last six months as the team to look out for.
Tall, well-built and noisy on court, the Danes can come across as a tad abrasive and arrogant about their pedigree in badminton. “Yes, sometimes they think too much of themselves, and even the commentary oozes that all-knowing arrogance. It was good to watch India beat them, ”national coach Pullela Gopichand would say later. Vimal Kumar, traveling with the team, would attest to the plop of good luck that helped Danes get past China, while telling his players to be completely irreverent of the rival’s rankings.
He recalls Indians losing out to Danes in 1979, and feeling a glint of revenge watching Srikanth, Prannoy & Co dump them out. But there were more bruising memories from the Thomas Cup, that made this week’s dreamy charge into the finals seem all the more a fairytale. I started playing Thomas Cup in 1981 as a top junior, and later traveling to China where we were slaughtered 9-0 in the older format with reverse singles and doubles over two days, as they fielded a very strong team on return to international competition . After that we just never had great depth. In 2018, our Singles were good enough to medal, but we did not have doubles and we lost to France! This time our doubles were strong, but more than that, the players were self-motivated. That has been the biggest difference, ”Vimal says.
HS Prannoy recalls the grim 2018 France tie with a shiver of all memories unsavory – also held in Thailand. “We went out to France in the group stages. That was easily my lowest point in the Thomas Cup, ”he remembers.
So around the All England and Swiss Open – where Lakshya Sen and Prannoy made finals respectively, and Srikanth looked in fine nick, Prannoy started sowing the seeds of a dream in his compatriots. “Two months back I started having these small conversations with Lakshya and Srikanth separately, and told them we need to seriously try this time since we are all in decent shape. Maybe, much stronger teams had gone to the Thomas Cup before us, but either due to injury or not performing well, India hadn’t done well. This time, we discussed giving our best. We wanted it badly, ”he says.
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Besides pulling out two important 2-2 tie-breakers against Malaysia and Denmark, the 29-year-old was also the good shepherd in giving this team direction. The man is capable of inciting goosebumps even without a racquet in hand, when he says: “It was important for our batch to play in an event not for ranking points, not for individual glory, where there’s no cash prize, but just a tournament for the country. That feeling is enough to push yourself. ”
This wasn’t mere spiel about continuing to dream and believing they were up there; but following up with wins. A 3-2 loss to Chinese Taipei was one of the best things to happen to India, Prannoy reckons. “That loss gave us a lot of insights and we had honest discussions about the issues we had to confront and try and figure. We ensured there’s no confusion, and made decisions that were best for the team, ”he recalls.
BAI had taken a bold point on exempting Prannoy from selection trials. “We gave weightage to international performance because you need experience of beating higher ranked players in Thomas Cup,” Vimal says. After coach Agus left on October 20, there had been changes made to the program stressing on higher intensity and better quality in training sessions.
Back in Hyderabad, the singles and doubles teams had started training side by side on 5 courts – 3 for singles, 2 for doubles. But more importantly, every training session was followed by a combined meeting. Only players, no coaches. Team dinners had begun even in Hyderabad, while Prannoy became the pointman to link up with Lakshya.
The team was in for a mini-shock on arrival in Thailand, learning that Lakshya Sen had suffered from a bit of food poisoning, after grabbing a bite at the airport and had been quite sick for a day, and was given another day’s rest after the Germany tie, with the rest of the squad covering for him and allowing him to heal fully. And keeping it all professional and mum, Vimal recalls the wobble start and the nightmare of What-if-he-did not recover. Srikanth and Prannoy had his back though.
After Prannoy beat Rasmus Gemke on Friday night, he received an unexpected bearhug from Kidambi Srikanth who had dispatched Anders Antonsen, together winning 2 of 3 singles. “He said, ‘Bro, I’m way too happy today. It was emotional and such a healthy team feeling, ”Prannoy says.
Prannoy won the deciding 5th rubber, but insists that other matches were equally if not more important. “Pressure on Srikanth was extraordinary, and I’ve never seen him so pumped up. When someone like him celebrates with a fist pump, it’s a big confidence boost for the rest of the squad, ”he says. Both players experienced dizzy heights of scalps and titles in 2017, and slumped together too thereafter.
“Srikanth is a very private guy and does not talk about his struggles. But I think we’ve talked more in the last 4 days than conversations in the last 6 months! After Malaysia, we told each other, we just can not lose to Denmark. No way. We’re both in that mood, we want this to happen for the country, ”Prannoy says, of a fellowship where the two former rivals have reconnected.
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Both are in a zen state, so to speak. “I’m satisfied with how I can control my aggression and deal with situations. Against Malaysia was the worst pressure because a loss would mean we would not even get a medal. But even after the small slip against Gemke, it was a totally mental game and I found the zone, ”he says.
Coach Siyadatullah recalls watching Prannoy splayed after a slide on the forecourt. “As coaches we have to seem cool, can not show our panic which I felt when he fell. But Prannoy said, “main nikaal lungaa match.” He was brilliant, ”the coach says. Rasmus Gemke sensing he could drive the knife in, took one of the worst decisions of his life: he decided to hustle and harry Prannoy and unnecessarily doubled his attacking pace, losing accuracy in the bargain.
“Prannoy just did not leave the net after that and controlled Gemke. In his attempt of ultaa strategy, Gemke played everything to Prannoy’s hand, and our boy was incredible in defense, ”he recalls. The backfired strategy left a shadow on Gemke’s face until long after.
Srikanth though needed some tempering against Antonsen on the night as the coach could be heard telling him in Telugu: “mella mellagadi, quickuh aadu”. (Mix the slow and the fast). Antonsen had started reading Srikanth at the net, and was threatening to counter by baiting him to play fast. Srikanth, forever a man on the speed blitz, has lost many matches in the past after not decelerating and piling up errors. Not on Friday. “He mixed pace well, and waited for the patient return. I speak to Gopi bhaiyya every night about deciding sets, and he had asked me to keep an eye on this aspect, ”Siyadath says. Srikanth was stellar on the night, “The way he smartly slowed down but exploded when he spotted a weak shuttle was brilliant,” he says.
While Vimal has seen a massive difference in Srikanth taking the initiative to guide Lakshya and others – on pre match preps and what and how much to eat to set the stomach – Siyadath says Srikanth does things his way. “He does not talk a lot, but is specific in instructions,” he says of the avowed MS Dhoni fan, with a not too indistinct personality and intuitive feel for the game. “He’s not crazy about rules. If he needs 40 minutes of warm up, he will take 40 full minutes. He hates being rushed before a match, and follows his own calm pace, ”he says, of habits similar to what some top names in cricket like Kapil Dev and Tendulkar are known for.
Satwik likes his laidback pace too, while Chirag Shetty has his set of routines he is assiduous about. “But they both know each other so well now, and what needs to be done,” Vimal says, adding India’s all-important doubles pairing cover up well for each other. Satwik can be error prone, and Chirag can clam up while closing out – they fobbed a 20-18 lead in the second against the yelping Danes, but stayed composed in decider.
Mathias Boe, the Danish doubles coach, has brought in the rigor. Dubbed ‘Judas’ by the Danes on Saturday hilariously – for helping India send them out of the tournament – Boe can scare the daylights out of the Indian paired players by screaming at them. “If they’re not on time on court, he screams. Simple, ”says Indian coach Arun Vishnu.
But it’s more respect for his hours spent on court, than fear for Satwik-Chirag. “He’s a typical European who communicates better than Asians. He’s helping them wriggle out of end-game knots, ”Vimal says.
The duo did give ‘heart attacks’ to Prannoy the last two days. “When they lost from 20-18 in the second, I thought this is not looking good,” Prannoy says. “But they come through each time.” Srikanth, always in the warmup zone, is spared the thrills. “I keep peeping out to see the match, when hitting with Srikanth as he prepares for the third match. But yes, it’s good for my heart I’m with Srikanth, ”Siyadath jokes.
This is a Thomas Cup team honest about each other’s and their own individual weaknesses, and eager to shield the other from criticism. Meals in Hyderabad have seen a follow-up when the whole bunch tries to get in one lunch or dinner together. Either walking out to a food court across the arena, or at breakfast. Coach Vijaydeep Singh has managed to locate Namdharis in Bangkok who have been feeding them one wholesome roti subji meal, and at other times cooked them a simple daal rice lunch if someone’s lined up for a 2 pm match.
The Indian team moves around like a pack, dances freely to celebrate ties, rushes on court after a win, and decided they’d land at Bangkok in uniforms, not casuals with noise-canceling headphones. There was a conscious decision to build a team, for an event with no prize money. “We’ll remember the goosebumps,” Prannoy insists. You can not buy those.