BADMINTON IS THE IDEAL NO. 2 TO CRICKET

Mint ST - - BUSINESS OF LIFE - DEEP POINT DEEPAK NARAYANAN

Some­thing quite amaz­ing hap­pened on Sun­day. In­dia were play­ing Sri Lanka in a One Day In­ter­na­tional in Pallekele. Liver­pool and Ar­se­nal, two of the most pop­u­lar English foot­ball clubs in the coun­try, were fac­ing off in the Premier League.

Yet, all any­one was talk­ing about through the evening (and well into Mon­day morn­ing) was badminton.

P.V. Sindhu, once again, had the na­tion hooked to her del­i­cate drop shots and sear­ing smashes as she played her part in an epic fi­nal against Ja­pan’s No­zomi Okuhara at the 2017 Badminton World Cham­pi­onships in Glas­gow. She might have lost the match but, by all ac­counts, hearts had been won. Add to that the fact that she was joined on the podium by Saina Ne­hwal, and it was clear that badminton had won the week­end’s eye­balls con­test.

Through the late 1990s and 2000s, any non-crick­eter you spoke to had a com­mon com­plaint—that In­dia was a one-sport coun­try, that all fans and spon­sors cared about was cricket. This was a re­frain that united In­dia’s ath­letes—from foot­ballers to ten­nis play­ers, from hockey stars to as­sorted Olympians.

They weren’t wrong, but there was a sense of help­less­ness when they spoke about their sit­u­a­tion, a feel­ing that no mat­ter what they did, they would al­ways be sec­ond-class cit­i­zens in the so­ci­ety of In­dian sport­ing he­roes.

There have been those who have man­aged to hold their own against the crick­et­ing be­he­moth.

In some cases, it was fleet­ing. Sa­nia Mirza, for ex­am­ple, made it to the top 30 in the world, but a se­ries of in­juries meant her sin­gles ca­reer hit a mas­sive speed bump just as it was gain­ing mo­men­tum. To her credit, she re­cal­i­brated her game and dom­i­nated the dou­bles land­scape.

There have been those who achieved great­ness but in sports that weren’t ex­actly spec­ta­tor-friendly. Viswanathan Anand ruled the world of chess, Ab­hi­nav Bin­dra did the same in shoot- ing, and while both be­came house­hold names, nei­ther was likely to have the en­tire na­tion glued to their tele­vi­sion sets.

For any sport to stake a claim as a clear No.2, after cricket, in In­dia, it needed a min­i­mum of three things go­ing for it. It needed to be Tv-friendly, it needed to be some­thing Indians could con­nect to, and it needed Indians com­pet­ing con­sis­tently at the elite level.

Badminton sud­denly has ev­ery­thing go­ing for it. It’s the per­fect spec­ta­tor sport in an In­dian con­text. Matches are short, in­cred­i­bly fast-paced, and lend them­selves to in­tense drama. Also, like cricket, most of us have played badminton grow­ing up, so there is al­ready a strong con­nec­tion in place.

Fi­nally, at no other time, in no other sport, have we had so many ath­letes at the top of the game.

Ne­hwal, re­turn­ing from in­jury, made the semi-fi­nals in Glas­gow. Ear­lier in the year, Srikanth Ki­dambi made it to three con­sec­u­tive Su­per Se­ries fi­nals, los­ing the first to com­pa­triot Sai Pra­neeth and win­ning the next two. Paru­palli Kashyap and Ajay Ja­yaram too have been in the mix. Then, of course, there’s Sindhu, who has been awe­some for al­most five years now (ever since she won bronze at the 2013 World Cham­pi­onships as a 17-year-old).

Any of them mak­ing it to the semis or fi­nals of big tour­na­ments no longer comes as a sur­prise. Their losses don’t spark the kind of re­ac­tion re­served for un­der­dogs. It’s less of “this it­self is good enough for an In­dian” and more of “no stress, there’s al­ways next time”.

In short, mag­i­cal mo­ments in In­dian badminton are no longer con­sid­ered mir­a­cles. Given how much of a one-sport coun­try In­dia has been for as long as one can re­mem­ber, that in it­self is a mir­a­cle.

COL­UMN

Deepak Narayanan, a jour­nal­ist for nearly 20 years, now runs an events space, The 248 Col­lec­tive, in Goa. He tweets at @deep­akyen.

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