It appears to be the strangest of perceptions in Indian badminton circles that the dreaded Coronavirus could potentially be deadly to its female shuttlers, but the men could chance their luck at the forthcoming Badminton Asia Championships in the heavily infected South-East Asian region.
How else does one construe the following two statements released by the Badminton Association of India (BAI), a few days back:
"Unforeseen health hazard apprehension due to the Coronavirus outbreak has resulted in the withdrawal of the women's team for the upcoming Badminton Asian Championships, which is starting from February 11-16, 2020 in Manila, Philippines."
"After receiving complete assurances from Badminton Asia (BA), BAI had discussed the same with the Indian squad, the men's team agreed to travel and confirmed their participation; however, the women's team was withdrawn owing to concerns showed by parents and players."
In any case, fielding an Indian women's team in the event, in the absence of PV Sindhu, Saina Nehwal, Ashwini Ponnappa and N Sikki Reddy would likely have produced nondescript results. Nothing much could have been expected from the second-string squad that had been selected and comprised Ashmita Chaliha, Aakarshi Kashyap, Malvika Bansod, Gayatri Gopichand, Ashwini Bhat, Shikha Gautam, Rutaparna Panda and K Maneesha.
Reigning world champion Sindhu, who had already been assured of a spot in the draw for the Tokyo Olympics, could hardly have been expected to be interested in the Manila tournament. Saina, who had skipped the financially lucrative Premier Badminton League (PBL) in order to concentrate her energies on gaining valuable points from circuit tournaments like the Thailand Masters, appeared to have given up the ghosts after a first-round loss in Bangkok to Denmark's Line Hojmark Kjaersfeldt.
India's World No 11 in men's singles, B Sai Praneeth will lead the country's challenge in the Badminton Asia Championships. AFP
Thus, the air tickets of the women's team were torn up, but a near full-strength men's squad, comprising 2019 World Championships bronze medallist B Sai Praneeth, Kidambi Srikanth, HS Prannoy, Subhankar Dey, Lakshya Sen, Satwiksairaj Rankireddy, Chirag Shetty, Dhruv Kapila and MR Arjun have landed in Manila for the 2020 version of the annual competition, which features both a team event and an individual tournament.
The one player who had done reasonably well in the 2019 Badminton Asia individual event, Sameer Verma, is missing from the fray. While Srikanth had fallen by the wayside in the opening round itself last year, at the hands of his Indonesian nemesis, Shesar Hiren Rhustavito, Verma had battled through three rounds to the quarter-finals, where he surrendered rather tamely at 10-21, 12-21 to China's Shi Yuqi, then ranked No 2 in the world.
The individual singles crown, along with the top prize of $30,000 and 9,200 BWF (Badminton World Federation) circuit points, had been claimed by the amazingly consistent Kento Momota and counted among the dozen titles he took home in what was a phenomenal year for him.
Shi Yuqi ended runner-up after a three-game dogfight in the summit clash with the left-handed Japanese world champion, fading progressively as the match wore on, until he was a veritable passenger in the decider. The losing semi-finalists were Chinese Taipei's Chou Tien Chen, who was to end the year on the second rung of the BWF ladder, and the tournament's surprise packet " Vietnam's veteran battler, Nguyen Tien Minh.
Among the women, another Japanese, Akane Yamaguchi, had come up trumps with a storming 21-19, 21-9 win over Chinese left-hander He Bingjiao in the title clash, while two other Chinese youngsters, Chen Yufei and Cai Yan Yan, had to be content by making it to the last-four stage.
The Badminton Asia individual crown had been one of three titles that the diminutive 22-year-old Yamaguchi won in the early part of 2019 when she was at the very top of her game. Thereafter, the Japanese had experienced a sharp dip in form that lasted for several months before she found form at the Thailand Masters in January this year, beating teenaged Korean prodigy An Se Young in the final.
While the individual events in Manila take place after the curtain comes down on the team championship, the team event this year has been badly hit by the late withdrawal of China and Hong Kong, thanks to the proliferation of the Coronavirus in the world's most populous nation and the areas around it. It has also forced a re-cast of the men's team draw.
India, whose total haul from the team event over the years has been a solitary bronze medal in 2016, had originally been drawn in Group A, along with the powerful Indonesians. In the recast of the draw, the Indonesians have remained in Group A, while the Indians have been placed in Group B in the company of Malaysia and minnows Kazakhstan.
There are only ten teams participating in the men's event this year, which means that there are two teams in Groups A (South Korea and Indonesia) and D (Thailand and Japan); and three teams in Groups B (India, Malaysia and Kazakhstan) and C (Chinese Taipei, Singapore and Philippines).
Since eight of these teams are slated to go through to the play-off quarter-finals, it is easy to conclude that Kazakhstan and hosts the Philippines would be the two prime candidates for early elimination. The Indians have only to win their opening match of the competition on Tuesday against the Kazakhs, to book their place in the last eight, and render the final group match against Malaysia on Thursday meaningless.
It is not possible to speculate on the course of the quarter-finals since the draw will be made afresh at the end of the preliminary group stage. Suffice it to say that, on paper, India appears to be one of the two weakest teams in the men's section, the other being Singapore.
India will need the luck of the draw, and some superlative performances from Srikanth, Sai Praneeth and the doubles duo of Rankireddy and Shetty, if they are to make the semi-finals and assure themselves of a podium finish.