India’s Thomas Cup-winning squad from 2022 gets to flaunt their prowess and fix the odd chink in their armour at the Badminton Asia Team Championships starting on Wednesday.
At Shah Alam in Malaysia – where the men’s team stocked up on groceries shopping together, posed poolside donning funky glares and matching hotel towels for Instagram shots, and were flanked by a strong, united coaching staff – the successful team seemed happy.
The legacy of that Thomas Cup, which India will defend this May, was also a bunch of elite shuttlers, confident of themselves and happy for their teammates. Satwiksairaj Rankireddy-Chirag Shetty, HS Prannoy, Lakshya Sen and K Srikanth are formidable names over a 3 singles-2 doubles format; but they are also fun-spreading folk in team situations.
Should India – who start as one of the favourites – win their first-ever Asian team event after missing out on the Asiad gold last September, this wholesome group vibe can percolate to the juniors – national champions Suraj Goala-Pruthvi Roy and Chirag Sen.
As such, with only Korea and Malaysia at almost full strength amongst men, India will back themselves. But grouped with Hong Kong and China, with only two of the three making the quarterfinals, they must hit the ground running straightaway against the former on Wednesday.
India’s enviable fist at the Thomas Cup packed a punch due to three formidable singles players in Lakshya, Srikanth and Prannoy. They will need an encore, with Prannoy tasked with playing the first men’s singles (MS1) this time.
Can’t take anyone lightly
Hong Kong are no pushovers and their MS 1 & 2 are World No.14 Lee Cheuk Yiu and No.22 Ng Ka Long Angus, the most improved and most stubborn opponents on the circuit with a proclivity to annoy Indians. Chan Yin Chak, No.89, is their third singles player. Law Cheuk Him-Yeung Shing Choi (No.107) and Chow Hin Long-Lui Chun Wai (No.157) are their best doubles combines, and Indians hold a certain edge there.
Against China on Thursday, India will face their second string in Lu Guang Zu and Weng Hong Yang, no pushovers. Prannoy, ranked No.7 will likely be up against No.16 Weng in MS1. While Lakshya can be backed to nail down No.17 Lu in MS2, Srikanth will need to be on his toes against Lei Lanxi, who’s far better than his No.35 rank suggests.
China have landed without their top two singles players, Shi Yuqi and Li Shifeng, as well as their top two doubles pairings. But even their third-best combination of He Ji Ting-Ren Xiang Yu, at No.14, besides Chen Bo Yang-Liu Yi (No.27) and Xie Hao Nan-Zeng Wei Han (No.90) can pop surprises, and will need careful screening by Dhruv Kapila- MR Arjun.
Japan have Kodai Naraoka, Kento Momota and Kenta Nishimoto, besides Akira Koga-Taichi Saito, but are without Takuro Hoki-Yugo Kobayashi. Indonesia are missing both their singles stars in Jonatan Christie and Anthony Ginting. The Koreans always punch above their weight in team events, and Malaysia at home with Lee Zii Jia and Aaron Chia-Soh Wooi Yik can prove a handful for the Indians.
Sindhu’s big return
India’s women’s team isn’t particularly fear-inspiring beyond PV Sindhu and the energetic doubles of Treesa Jolly-Gayatri Gopichand and Ashwini Ponnappa-Tanisha Crasto. Yet, assured of a quarterfinal spot by default and playing a group tie without the pressure of qualification, these five women can set the tone against China-lite.
Of greatest interest will be Sindhu’s return from knee trouble that saw her freeze her ranking (No.11) for three months. She’s back after training at Prakash Padukone’s academy in Bengaluru, and will likely be thrust into attack against Chinese Han Yue, World No.8.
Sindhu first came to prominence as a 17-year-old running roughshod over mighty Chinese names, and the young Indian singles guns will have no one better to inspire them, even when unheralded. Ashmita Chaliha gets to have a pop at Wang Zhi Yi, while if fielded, national champion Anmol Kharb can go up against No.109 Chen Lu to pit her wits against a Chinese opponent.
China haven’t pulled their punches in the women’s doubles, sending current World No.4, Sheng Shu Liu-Ning Tan, whom Ashwini-Tanisha (No.21) will need to battle. For No.23 Treesa-Gayatri, there’s No.22 Yi Jing Li-Xu Min Luo.
Japan, Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia have landed with their top women’s pairings, and it’s a tricky few knockout days for both Indian pairs.
Korean women have skipped the event altogether which means no An SeYoung. Many top women’s singles names – Chen Yufei, Tai Tzu-Ying, Ratchanok Intanon, Akane Yamaguchi, Gregoria Mariska Tunjung or He Bingjiao – aren’t in Shah Alam so Sindhu can perhaps ease her way back. So even as she takes her gingery first few steps on a comeback, the former world champ will be looked up to shoulder India’s burden and make the last four for Uber Cup qualification.