Sudirman Cup 2019: India make poor selection choices to flounder against Malaysia; quarter-final chances all but extinct

Shirish Nadkarni
The dropping from the line-up of India’s top hopes, skipper Kidambi Srikanth in the men’s singles, and the crack combination of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty in the men’s doubles, resulted in the almost magnanimous handover of the Group 1D tie to Malaysia on a platter by a slim 3-2 margin,

What was the country's on-tour think tank doing by fielding a below-par team in the crucial Sudirman Cup badminton mixed team championship group tie against Malaysia, in what was a must-win encounter?

The dropping from the line-up of India's top hopes, skipper Kidambi Srikanth in the men's singles, and the crack combination of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty in the men's doubles, resulted in the almost magnanimous handover of the Group 1D tie to Malaysia on a platter by a slim 3-2 margin, and the virtual extinction of the country's hopes of making the play-off quarter-finals from the group.

It is not known whether Srikanth was suffering from an injury, or whether the team management felt that the back-up singles player, Sameer Verma, had been in better form recently than his higher-ranked compatriot and stable-mate, who had suffered an ignominious first-round exit at the hands of lowly ranked Indonesian Shesar Hiren Rhustavito in the Badminton Asia Championships a month back.

It is equally hard to fathom the reason for giving Manu Attri and B Sumeeth Reddy their spurs against the Malaysian duo of Aaron Chia and Teo Ee Yi. Was it that the mandarins felt that fielding Rankireddy in two matches, so soon after his return from injury, would place too much stress on the 18-year-old doubles specialist?

Whatever the reasons were for fielding a combination that was well short of being the best the country had on paper, the move brought Malaysia right back into the tie after they trailed 1-2 after the women's singles clash. The eventual result, after what was a dream start for India, was disastrous, and left Srikanth's squad with the unenviable task of beating the powerful second-seeded Chinese in their second and final group match on Wednesday.

There could not have been two schools of thought on what was required by India to win against Malaysia on Tuesday. The two singles were an absolute must, with the third match needing to come from one of the three doubles combinations.

Nor did the task seem all that difficult, at least for the singles events, if one were to take into account the rankings of the respective players before analysing their chances. The women's singles would be a cinch, with the World No 5 PV Sindhu being streets ahead of the top Malaysian, Goh Jin Wei (25th in the world), in terms of ranking, skill and previous record.

Srikanth, at No 9 on the Badminton World Federation (BWF) rankings, was way above the 20th-ranked Lee Zii Jia, playing the men's singles in the enforced absence of the great Lee Chong Wei. The two had not clashed in any tournament earlier. Nor had there been an on-court meeting between Zii Jia and Verma, who at No 13, was also comfortably clear of the 21-year-old Malaysian greenhorn in the ranking stakes.

It all should have boiled down to securing one of the three doubles. And India got off to the best possible start when Rankireddy and Ashwini Ponnappa played one of their best-ever matches to save two match-points and lower the colours of Goh Soon Huat and Shevon Jemie Lai in a titanic 70-minute battle at 16-21, 21-17, 24-22. It is relevant to mention here that the Indian combination was ranked 25th, compared to the Malaysians' 14th spot on the ladder.

With the mixed doubles in the bag, and the two singles to follow, India could have been forgiven for thinking that they were in an almost impregnable position. Indeed, they were eyeing a winning 3-0 lead, and a guaranteed place in the quarter-finals. But what happened next on court was traumatic in the extreme for Indian supporters.

Playing against Zii Jia, who had been summarily hustled off the court at 11-21, 12-21 by China's Shi Yuqi in the China-Malaysia clash on Sunday, Verma was as flat as he had been when he had bowed to Shi in the Badminton Asia quarter-finals in Wuhan by an almost identical scoreline (10-21, 12-21).

Try as he might, the 24-year-old Indian could not raise his game, and faded away alarmingly after challenging Zii Jia initially until 7-all in the first game. Of course, credit must be given to the youthful Malaysian, who played much better today than he had been allowed to by Shi Yuqi, and seized his chances to totally dominate Verma for a 21-13, 21-15 verdict in 48 minutes.

That was the turning point of the tie, although Sindhu restored India's lead with a clinical win against Goh Jin Wei. The willowy 23-year-old Hyderabadi channelised all the frustration of seeing her fellow-countryman lose a crucial tie, into a blitzkrieg against Goh, and emerged from the court after just 35 minutes with a 21-12, 21-8 triumph.

Had Rankireddy and Shetty (ranked 20th) played against Chia and Teo (ranked 18th), India might have had a chance of salvaging the men's doubles, for there was little separating the two pairs, at least on paper. But for Attri and Reddy, occupying the 26th berth in the rankings, it was a bridge too far against opponents who had stretched the World's No 2 pair of Li Junhui and Liu Yuchen all the way to the tape, and lost at 22-24 in the decider.

Not that the Indians played badly, as the final scoreline of 20-22, 19-21 shows. But the Malaysians always looked that wee bit superior, and seemed to have the match under control, with leads of 20-17 and 20-14 in the two games they played. A few end-game jitters by Chia and Teo made the scores look better for the Indians than they deserved.

With the tie scores deadlocked at 2-2, it all went down to the women's doubles, where the Malaysian pairing of Lee Meng Yean and Chow Mei Kuan (ranked 17th) had a decided advantage on paper against the right-left combination of Ponnappa and Sikki Reddy (ranked 25th). There was little to separate the two pairs in the second game, where the Indians squandered a useful 19-14 lead to lose the last seven points of the match and go down by an 11-21, 19-21 scoreline.

Having had their quarter-final hopes shattered by the surrender of the tie against Malaysia, the Indians can only hope for a miracle when they take on second seeds China in their final group match on Wednesday. Even a slim 3-2 victory against the Chinese will take the Indians through to the last-eight stage on countback of matches won versus matches lost, but that is easier said than done.

India's faint hopes will dwell in the two singles. Srikanth or Verma will have to slip it across Shi Yuqi or Chen Long; Sindhu or Saina Nehwal will have to take down Chen Yufei or He Bingjiao. Intrinsically, both positive results for the Indians are possible, but even if they took both singles ties, where would the third match come from?

China are blessed with the World No 1 and 2 pairs in the mixed doubles, and with the World no 2 pair in the men's doubles. The best Chinese women's doubles pair of Chen Qingchen and Jia Yifan is ranked fifth in the world, compared to Ponnappa and Reddy's 25th rank, and boasts a formidable record in tournaments this year.

Can the Indians pull off a miracle against the hosts in Nanning? Judged on the strength of Tuesday's showing against the Malaysians, even the words "highly unlikely" would appear to be an understatement!

Also See: Sudirman Cup 2019: Eighth seed India to start as favourites against Lee Chong Wei-less Malaysia in opening tie

Sudirman Cup 2019: Inconsistent form of ace shuttlers PV Sindhu, Kidambi Srikanth gives India cause for concern

Sudirman Cup 2019: Japan present strongest challenge to China's bid for 11th title; India likely to make quarters by beating Malaysia

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