Trailing 0-2 after crushing losses in the first two men's singles ties of the Badminton Asia men's team quarter-finals, India came roaring back with victories in the third singles and two doubles matches, to pip Thailand 3-2, and set up a semi-final clash with defending champions Indonesia in Manila on Saturday.
The twist in the tale was provided by India's erstwhile premier singles player, Kidambi Srikanth, who shrugged off his 20-22, 14-21 defeat at the hands of world junior champion, Kunlavut Vitidsarn in the second singles, and pooled his doubles talents with the ever-reliable Chirag Shetty, to post a 21-15, 16-21, 21-15 win over Maneepong Jongjit and Nipitphon Phuangphuapet in the fifth and deciding tie.
Few Indian badminton lovers may be aware that Srikanth, along with elder brother Nandgopal, was an excellent doubles player in the earlier years of the decade gone by, before national coach Pullela Gopichand saw his singles potential, and pushed him into playing singles full time.
The Guntur lad, who turned 27 last week, proved to be a godsend for the Indian squad, following the unavailability of doubles ace Satwiksairaj Rankireddy, who was part of the team to the Philippines, but was injured during a practice session before the competition opened last Tuesday.
Incredible comeback! 🇮🇳 shuttlers ensure a place in the semis of @Badminton_Asia with a thrilling3£:2£victory over 🇹🇭
" BAI Media (@BAI_Media) February 14, 2020
Shetty was hence forced to take on a scratch partner in the shape of HS Prannoy in India's opening Group B encounter against Kazakhstan, but the experiment was doomed to failure, for this was the only match that India lost in the course of the 4-1 demolition of the Kazakhs. Srikanth was a far better bet in the stellar men's doubles against Thailand, though the draw ensured that the match was played last.
It would also appear that Thailand made a grievous error by fielding Nipitphon Phuangphuapet to play with Maneepong, rather than the latter's regular partner, Bodin Isara, who was thought to be overweight and slower on the court than desirable. But those who had seen Bodin's performance during the recent Premier Badminton League (PBL) would have readily testified that the left-hander had lost none of his flair and verve.
The Thai decision to prefer Nipitphon to Bodin worked to India's benefit, but papered over the glaring shortcomings in India's over-all challenge. Sai Praneeth hardly looked the part of the player who had bagged the bronze medal at the 2019 World Championships in Basel, as he dug himself into a hole of his own making by meekly surrendering the first game to Kantaphon Wangcharoen.
Knowing that stamina is not his long suit, Praneeth ought to have put much more than he did into that crucial first game. Having lost the opener at 14-21, he was forced to pull out all stops to restore parity, at 21-14, but the effort predictably sapped him so much that he was little more than a passenger in the decider, losing 12-21.
Srikanth's tepid performances over the past year did not give the Indians much hope that he would even the tie score by slipping it across the 18-year-old Kunlavut, who had won the 2019 Junior World Championships in Kazan, Russia, is currently ranked 35th in the world, and who has a winning 3-2 head-to-head record against India's top junior, Lakshya Sen.
Trailing by a few points throughout the first game, Srikanth used his experience to neutralise at 18-all, and again at 20-all. But he could not get those vital two points for the game, and eventually capitulated at 20-22, 14-21 in 38 minutes. It was agonising to see the Indian work hard to come from 10-15 down in the second game, to 14-16, and then throw it all away with five consecutive points without so much as a rally.
It was left to the recently formed combination of Dhruv Kapila and MR Arjun (who earlier partnered Shlok Ramchandran) to pull one back for India with a narrow 21-18, 22-20 triumph against Kittinupong Kedren and Tanupat Viriyangkura. Lakshya Sen then made the tie score 2-2 with an efficient, albeit tightly fought, 21-19, 21-18 win over Thailand's No 3 player, Suppanyu Avihingsanon; and set the stage for Srikanth's unexpected star turn in the all-important doubles.
It can be said that the luck of the draw did favour the Indians, for they were able to avoid the other three strong seeded teams in the knock-out draw " title holders Indonesia, Japan and Malaysia. Of course, they had already crossed swords with Malaysia at the round-robin stage, and suffered a 1-4 drubbing, but the scores would probably have been the same against either Japan or Indonesia, had they run into India at the last-eight stage.
The Indians will get the opportunity of proving their detractors wrong, when they take on the powerful Indonesians in the semi-finals on Saturday. The defending champions were on court for less than an hour and a half, in toto, as they blanked hosts, the Philippines, by a 3-0 scoreline; and appear to be in top form to march past their penultimate round opponents.
The other semi-final, in fact, could well provide richer fare, with Japan taking on Malaysia. The former, who are without world champion Kento Momota (still recovering from the after-effects of a broken nose suffered in a road accident in Kuala Lumpur last month), had some difficulty while seeing off Chinese Taipei by a 3-1 scoreline, while Malaysia thumped South Korea by a comprehensive 3-0 margin.
Against the Indians, Indonesia have no demonstrable weakness, with the likes of Anthony Sinisuka Ginting, Jonatan Christie and Shesar Hiren Rhustavito taking on the rival singles challenge, while the world's top two combinations of Marcus Fernaldi Gideon " Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo and Mohammad Ahsan " Hendra Setiawan handle the doubles duties. A third crack doubles pair, Fajar Alfian and Mohammad Rian Ardianto, waits in the wings.
Only a miracle will get the Indians past this formidable armada, but they can have the satisfaction of having made it to the semi-finals, and given themselves the chance of at least a bronze medal, which they have won on only one occasion in the past " in 2016.