Commonwealth Games 2018: India's best-ever medal haul gives hope for better results at Asian Games, Thomas-Uber Cup

Shirish Nadkarni
A fortnight which began with India winning mixed team gold at the Gold Coast, ends with the sight of Satwiksairaj and Chirag winning silver. For good measure, somewhere in between those six medals, Srikanth rises to the World No 1 spot.

The pre-tournament prediction for India had been a seven-medal haul, including the mixed team gold, from the badminton discipline of the 2018 Commonwealth Games (CWG). The eventual collection from the recently-concluded quadrennial event was just marginally off the pace; India ended up with half-a-dozen medals, broken up into two gold, three silver and a solitary bronze.

This sizable contribution from the shuttle sport came up to roughly 9 percent of the total number of 66 medals (comprising 26 gold, 20 silver and 20 bronze) in India's kitty from the eleven-day sporting extravaganza that is only open to members of the erstwhile British Empire. In both numerical terms and colour of medals earned, it was the best-ever haul by an Indian badminton squad at any Commonwealth Games.

There had also been two gold medals among the 38 garnered from the 2010 event, held on home soil in New Delhi. These had come from Saina Nehwal in the women's singles, and from the women's doubles pair of Jwala Gutta and Ashwini Ponnappa. There had also been a mixed team silver, after the home side had been beaten by Malaysia in the final.

Two of the relics of the 2010 event, both female, both raw 20-year olds in New Delhi, and now a venerable 28 on the Gold Coast, were once again in the thick of medal action at the Carrara Sports & Leisure Centre. Saina won her second CWG individual gold medal at the expense of compatriot Pusarla Venkata Sindhu and was a key element in India's 3-1 final win over three-time defending champions Malaysia, that netted them the yellow metal.

Ponnappa, in the company of the 17-year-old doubles prodigy, Satwiksairaj Rankireddy, made a telling mixed doubles contribution to India's team triumph, lowering the colours of the 2016 Rio Olympics silver medallists, Chan Peng Soon and Goh Liu Yin. However, the recently married shuttler had to rest content with a women's doubles bronze medal in the company of left-hander N Sikki Reddy, with a victory in the third-place play-off over Australia's Gronya Somerville and Setyana Mapasa.

The other two notable achievements, of pocketing silver medals to add to India's tally, came from the recently anointed World No 1, Kidambi Srikanth, and the youthful men's doubles pair of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty.

Srikanth, as the top seed in this event, and the World No 2 when the draws were made, compared to Malaysian Lee Chong Wei's No 6 ranking, should have been good enough for gold, particularly as he had beaten Lee with a degree of comfort in the course of the mixed team final. But Lee was a different kettle of fish in the individual summit clash, and provided the 25-year-old Indian with a reality check.

No words of praise can be too effusive for the exploits of Rankireddy and 20-year- old Shetty, who have been confirmed as the country's No 1 combination despite their narrow loss to Manu Attri and B Sumeet Reddy at the last Nationals in Nagpur in November 2017.

It will be remembered that the youngsters had held match-points at the All England Championships last month against the redoubtable, highly experienced, veteran Danish combination of Carsten Mogensen and Mathias Boe, before capitulating.

While they learned the initial basics of doubles play under the watchful eyes of former international Uday Pawar in suburban Mumbai, their talents were honed by Malaysian doubles coach Tan Kim Her, who has turned them into a world-beating combination.

Rankireddy and Shetty, who have worked their way up to the 22nd rung on the Badminton World Federation (BWF) rankings, have managed to build such a superb rapport between themselves that they function like a well-oiled machine on court. In the team final, they were brought rudely down to earth by the powerful Malaysian combination of Goh V Shem and Tan Wee Kiong, but in the individual event, they made the most of a favourable draw to barge into the final, decimating a none-too-strong Sri Lankan pair in the semi-final.

The Indians were fortunate that the luck of the draw packed three strong duos into the top half, while leaving the field wide open for them in the other half. England's Marcus Ellis and Chris Langridge, ranked 23rd in the world, were in outstanding form, and took down Singapore's Danny Bawa Chrisnanta and Terry Hee in the quarters, and Malaysians Goh and Tan in the semi-finals.

Although, on paper, the English duo was ranked one spot below Rankireddy and Shetty, the two were in such sparkling form throughout the tournament that they did not give the Indians even a semblance of a chance of grabbing the gold.

Ellis, in particular, moved on the court like greased lightning, and reached both individual doubles finals, ending up with a gold and a silver. He and Lauren Smith would not have been flattered had they upset the calculations of their top-seeded compatriots, the husband-and-wife team of Chris and Gabrielle Adcock; they stretched the match to 21-17 in the decider.

Nevertheless, the strain of playing in two events, which meant three tough matches on the day of the quarter-finals, told on Rankireddy; and, towards the end of his mixed doubles last-eight match with Ponnappa, he was moving on court like a poorly greased automaton. Despite a stout-hearted showing from Ponnappa, who really carried her partner through the match, the Indian teenager was literally out on his feet. He was marginally better in the men's doubles final, but needed to be at his best if he and Shetty were to take down the Englishmen.

One could stress here how unfair it is to badminton that the CWG rules do not permit the award of bronze medals to both losing semi-finalists, as is done in some other disciplines, notably boxing. It would have made some difference to India's final tally from badminton at these Games, and added a couple of bronze medals.

Rankireddy and Ponnappa lost the third-place play-off to the Malaysian pair they had beaten in the mixed team event, to give India just the start they wanted in their quest for the gold medal. The exhausted teenager, playing his fourth match of the day on Saturday, looked like a member of the 'walking dead'; and coach Gopichand was spot on when he remarked that India could have won more medals from badminton had the scheduling of matches been better.

Similarly, HS Prannoy lost the bronze play-off to England's 31-year-old Rajiv Ouseph (a silver medallist at the 2010 CWG), despite holding match-point on two occasions in their bitterly fought second game, after the Indian had outpaced the Englishman in the opener. A mentally broken Prannoy was a virtual passenger in the decider as Ouseph piled on the pressure.

Sadly, Prannoy and Sindhu seem to be sailing in the same boat, as far as their inability to wrest victory in tight matches is concerned. Sindhu's narrow 18-21, 21-23 loss to Saina in Sunday's women's singles final was the fifth instance since the 2016 Rio Olympics of her losing out over a final couple of points in a long-drawn encounter. Prannoy, similarly, had blown five match-points against Japan's Kazumasa Sakai before bowing out of the Indonesian Open semi-final in June last year.

All told, this was arguably the strongest and most balanced Indian badminton squad to participate in an overseas team event €" and the results were there for all to see. This all-round strength is bound to lead to better results for the country in the prestigious Thomas and Uber Cup team events later this year, and in the Asian Games, where the opposition would be substantially stronger than it is in the Commonwealth Games.

Also See: Commonwealth Games 2018: India start favourites to win badminton team gold and a clutch of individual medals

Commonwealth Games 2018: Indian shuttlers PV Sindhu, Saina Nehwal, Kidambi Srikanth sail into quarters

Highlights, Commonwealth Games 2018 Gold Coast, Day 8: Wrestlers Sushil Kumar, Rahul Aware win gold; India claim two medals in athletics

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