In the international sporting community, India is known more for the glaring inefficiency and 'don't-care' attitude of its bureaucracy than for the quality of its sporting heroes and heroines.
Time and time again, entries to international sporting events are sent late or at the eleventh hour, government clearances are obtained at the last possible minute, even if applied for well in advance, and air tickets are purchased on the actual day of scheduled departure, not only making them much more expensive, but also resulting in circuitous and unnecessary flight routing.
The latest victims of an uncaring sports bureaucracy are a bunch of top shuttlers, including singles stars HS Prannoy and B Sai Praneeth, and the top men's doubles combination of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty, all of whom have been forced to give the Badminton Asia Championships in Wuhan, China, a miss through no fault of their own. The Badminton Association of India (BAI) failed to send in their entries, even though they were eligible to play in the main draws of the competition.
The rules decree that each participating country is eligible to send in four entries in each of the five events, provided the players concerned hold down a place in the top-32 of the Badminton World Federation (BWF) rankings. By this criterion, Sai Praneeth (currently ranked 20th) and Prannoy (ranked 21st) qualified automatically in the main draw, along with higher ranked Kidambi Srikanth (No 8) and Sameer Verma (No 15).
However, the BAI bureaucrats claim to have been under the impression that only two players could be sent for each of the five events; and hence forwarded the entries of just Srikanth and Verma. Prannoy, who was a bronze medallist in the men's singles event last year, claimed that, in the absence of Abhijit, the BAI official who sent the entries correctly last year, but who has since left the association's employ, the new official has "messed up big time".
"Almost 10 entries have been missed, even though players had sent their names well before the deadline; and the BAI officials are not even apologising for their lapse," Prannoy fumed, adding, "last year, we all played because Abhijit handled everything well. Now we are in a right royal mess."
"Okay, although our non-participation at Wuhan has hurt some of us, we are perhaps not so poorly off this year, because the year for qualifying for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics starts from 30 April. But next year's Badminton Asia will be one of the tournaments counted for qualification to the Tokyo Games; and, if our entries are mishandled again, we could easily miss the chance of qualifying for the Olympics " which would be a huge tragedy," said Prannoy,
In the sad absence of some of India's best shuttlers, thanks to the bureaucratic bungling, it has been left to Srikanth and Sameer Verma among the men, and PV Sindhu and Saina Nehwal among the women, to be the country's flag-bearers at this continent-restricted event that carries relatively modest prize money of $400,000, but offers important circuit points in the rankings race.
Srikanth has been given the fifth seeding, and is scheduled to lock horns with China's two-time former world champion and reigning Olympic gold medallist Chen Long at the quarter-final stage, with both players bracketed in the top half of the draw dominated by the No 1 seed and reigning world champion Kento Momota of Japan.
The 26-year-old Guntur lad should be able to ease nicely into the tournament, since he has a couple of relatively easy initial rounds " against Indonesia's unknown Shesar Hiren Rhustavito in his lung-opener; and then against the victor of the first-round encounter between Vietnam's Tien Minh Nguyen and the winner of Group 'D' in the qualifying rounds.
Sameer, who has been playing well since he reached the semi-finals of the year-ending BWF World Tour finals in Guangzhou last December, has drawn a challenging opening duel with Japan's Kazumasa Sakai. The 24-year-old Dhar (Madhya Pradesh) native trails Sakai 1-2 in career head-to-heads, with losses in their most recent two encounters, at the 2017 All England and the 2018 Indonesia Masters.
If Sameer goes through to the second round, he will face the winner of the clash between sixth-seeded Indonesian, Anthony Sinisuka Ginting, and Hong Kong's Ng Ka Long Angus. Ginting ended a close second to Momota in the recently concluded Singapore Open and has been in top form in the first quarter of the current year.
Among the women, Sindhu has merited the fourth seeding and a first-round encounter with Japanese southpaw Sayaka Takahashi, younger sister of doubles specialist Ayaka. The 23-year-old Hyderabadi holds a 3-2 career advantage over Takahashi, having beaten the Japanese girl on the last two occasions that they have clashed " in the 2017 French Open and the 2018 Japan Open.
In the event that Sindhu clears her opening round, she will clash with the winner of the match between Malaysia's Lee Ying Ying and Indonesian Choirunnisa Choirunnisa, who has been promoted from the qualifying ranks. Another victory would put the No 4 seed in line for a quarter-final meeting against her recent nemesis, South Korea's Sung Ji Hyun, seeded eighth.
The two have a tight 8-8 career head-to-head record, but the Korean has won their most recent three clashes, including two just a few weeks ago " at the All England and the Malaysia Open. The loss at the latter tournament was particularly hurtful " the Indian was roundly thrashed by a 21-18, 21-7 scoreline in the first week of April.
Sindhu's compatriot, Saina, has been given the No 7 seeding and is in line for a quarter-final meeting with Japan's third-seeded Akane Yamaguchi. But before that, the 29-year-old Hissar-born shuttler must negotiate a tricky opening round against China's youthful Han Yue, who goes into the meeting with a 1-0 career win-loss record.
The 19-year-old Chinese player, who has climbed to the 12th spot in the BWF rankings, had aced Saina by a 21-18, 21-8 margin in the Syed Modi International in November last year, and will carry a decade-long age advantage as well as a huge psychological edge into the first-round Badminton Asia joust. Their winner would have a relatively easy second round against the victor of the clash between Indonesia's Ruselli Hartawan and South Korea's Kim Ga Eun.
In the men's doubles, India has a solitary entry in the shape of M R Arjun and Shlok Ramchandran, who have a tough opening round against the Chinese duo of He Jiting and Tan Qiang. Their victor would most likely take on the seventh-seeded Indonesians, Fajar Alfian and Muhammad Rian Ardianto in the second round.
India has three entrants in the women's doubles and four in the mixed doubles, but none of them are the country's top combinations involving the likes of Ashwini Ponnappa, N Sikki Reddy, Pranaav Jerry Chopra and Satwiksairaj Rankireddy, the last-named having just resumed play after a long time out with a shoulder injury.
In the event, it is hard to see any of the women's and mixed doubles pairs moving beyond the opening couple of rounds, and into the quarter-finals of this tough and prestigious tournament, featuring the best shuttling talent on the Asian continent.