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Youth, Resilience, Self-Belief & Strategy: How India Defied Odds to Win Maiden Thomas Cup Title

From a group stage loss to winning the title, the 10-man Indian badminton team went through a wave of emotions in Thailand over the past week. Self belief, camaraderie and a WhatsApp group with a tongue-in-cheek name were just some things that helped ensure the Thomas Cup triumph.
Indian badminton team players win Thomas Cup in Bangkok

The Indian men’s badminton team celebrate with the 2022 Thomas Cup trophy in Bangkok on Sunday.

If the Indian men’s badminton team had an ace up its sleeve in Lakshya Sen — the young and exciting talent who has burst into the top 10 in the world with some stellar performances over the past few months — the trump card who ensured their progress through the Thomas Cup draw was Kidambi Srikanth. Unbeaten through the campaign — six matches on the trot facing higher ranked opponents amidst varying degrees of pressure — Srikanth led India to their first ever triumph in the prestigious team championships yesterday. An historic moment for Indian badminton, and for the personal journeys of all the players involved. 

From Sen and Srikanth to HS Prannoy and the doubles specialists of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty, the Thomas Cup triumph is testament to not just the individual drive which has pushed them to the top rungs of the game, but also to the evident depth in the men’s game in the country. This is something the women’s team — despite the presence of an Olympic medalist in the ranks — badly needs. 

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The players who won India the title — their victory over 14 time champions Indonesia in the final makes them only the sixth nation in history to win the trophy — are all in the top 20 in the world, with Sen and the doubles pair in the top 10. Rankings are clear indicators of not just the quality of the players but their current form. The Indian side — despite a hardfought loss in the group stage against Chinese Taipei — were exuding confidence through the tournament. Ranked as outsiders through the three knockout ties — against Malaysia in the quarters, Denmark in the semifinals and then Indonesia in the summit clash — the Indians played on equal terms on court, ignoring the odds and oddities. At times, they seemed to be playing a notch above their opponents, carrying themselves with the kind of audacity that comes with confidence in their abilities. 

Srikanth commented on how he and his teammates were able to step up when it mattered. The team dynamic and camaraderie was there for all to behold as well. Badminton, in essence, is an individual pursuit. The Thomas and Uber Cup is the only chance for elite shuttlers to indulge in a team competition. And the most successful teams — like in any team competition — are the ones who work together as a unit and not as individual parts. That unity was evident not just in victory but also in the moments when the side was on the backfoot. Srikanth, through the post tournament press conference, reiterated that the triumph was of the 10 players in the squad (including doubles pair of MR Arjun and Dhruv Kapila, Krishna Prasad and Vishnuvardhan Goud and Priyanshu Rajawat).

“It's a great experience to play as a team,” Srikanth told mediapersons after the final. 

Also Read | India Stun Malaysia to Enter Semifinals of Thomas Cup

“I feel we had the best team, and all of them really stepped up when it mattered. Extremely happy with the way everyone has performed," he added.

"We had this group (on WhatsApp) and named it 'It's coming home'. It was just to believe in ourselves that we can do it,” said Srikanth. “There are also a lot of youngsters in the team. So, we just wanted to bring that feeling that we can do it. Wanted to back each other and help the juniors and get the best out of them. I'm happy that everything we have done, really worked well."

India’s tryst with destiny was no fluke nor a flash in the pan. It took meticulous planning as well as execution at the micro level, setting up strategies for specific opponents, and changing things midway when it warranted.

On Sunday, India ran through Indonesia with an ease that was as surprising as it was satisfying. The scoreline (3-0) was the only number that mattered though, and it came against what was scripted by the pundits. Who would expect India to rout Indonesia on a badminton court when the stakes are this high? Well, no one told Srikanth, Sen, Rankireddy or Shetty — Prannoy was not required to enter the fray as the others sealed it in style — that they were not supposed to beat Indonesia with relative ease. It seemed they did not even realise the weight of history either.

The key to the success lay in how the singles players in the mix have nurtured into world beaters, of late. Both Srikanth and Sen have beaten the best in the world and know how to win big matches. Prannoy is no stranger to high stakes either. And so, when the action began at the Impact Arena in Bangkok, India was out to stamp its mark in badminton’s history book. 

Sen, who was pummelled through the week and who had given out a feeling that his inexperience had caught up with him — rallied from a set down to beat Anthony Ginting 7-21, 21-17, 21-16. That he had to bank on his defence, before launching his exuberant kills, showed how active the Indian think-tank was through the matches, and how crucial mid-match changes in strategies were to the success. PV Sindhu, please take note! 

Enter Rankireddy-Shetty. They were up against the legendary Md. Ahsan and Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo. It would have been considered audacious to think the India duo will beat the Indonesian pairing. It took exactly that for the Indians to win — audacity exuded in the 18-21, 23-21, 21-19 victory. They were four match points down in the decider, before sealing it with a late flurry that left the Indonesians reeling. They are still figuring out what hit them, or so is the rumour doing the rounds in Bangkok. 

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Srikanth, when on a victory roll, is class personified. The former World No. 1 has often had erratic form, but those seem to be a thing of the past. During this edition of the Thomas Cup, Srikanth hardly put a foot wrong. While playing the match of his life against Jonatan Christie, he stamped his authority, winning 21-15, 23-21. The winning repertoire included Lin Dan-ish reflex returns and though Christie put up a fight in the second game, Srikanth was too much in the zone to be affected by opponents or their feeble attempts at comebacks. That too from someone whom he had banished to the backfoot right from the opening exchanges in the match.

Srikanth put things into perspective immediately after the victory. There was a lot at stake for the 10-member Indian squad, beyond personal goals, prices to win and scores to settle, he said.

"In any major event be it the Commonwealth Games, Asian Games, Thomas and Uber Cup, world championships, none of them have prize money. But when you win in these tournaments, it is for the country. After we won, people said India won Thomas Cup, it was not Srikanth or Prannoy, so it itself was a special feeling," said Srikanth.

"I don't think everyone will have the privilege to experience it, it is us 10 players and coaching staff who have experienced it now and it will motivate others to do well. So the motivating factor was that we won this for the country," he concluded.

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