India made as inglorious an exit from this year's Thomas Cup as their captain HS Prannoy's lifeless performance against two-time former world champion and Olympic gold medallist, Chen Long, with top seeded China thumping India by a 5-0 scoreline to progress to the quarter-finals of the elite men's team competition in Bangkok.
The title favourites were joined in the last eight by France, who blanked Australia by an identical margin, winning all their five matches with elan, without dropping a single game. China thus ended their pool stage campaign with three tie wins " all by 5-0 margins " and without a single loss in Group A. France ended as runners-up with two ties won against a solitary loss (to China), while India finished third in the pool with a 1-2 tie record, and winless Australia occupied the cellar.
If Prannoy's 9-21, 9-21 loss to Chen in two minutes under the half-hour mark was any indication of the Indian team's mental involvement in the proceedings, the Thai organisers could well have halted the tie at that stage itself, and spared Indian supporters further agony.
So completely passive and stoic was the skipper's display that any trepidation within his redoubtable Chinese rival's mind that Prannoy would repeat his heroics of last June's Indonesian Open would have been instantly dispelled. The Indian, who sits on the No 9 spot in the Badminton World Federation (BWF) rankings, had notched his sole victory over Chen in four meetings at the time, in Jakarta last year. He had also put up a reasonable fight while going down to the tall Chinese ace at 16-21, 18-21 in the Badminton Asia Championships last month.
But on Tuesday, he was a pale shadow of his normal self, seeming almost disinterested in the match, and going about his work in a shambolic manner, as if he were forcing himself to perform an unpleasant duty. Not once did Prannoy rouse himself from his stupor, or egg himself on, as a grateful Chen grabbed the opportunity with both hands and trampled all over the Indian, to open China's account.
Zhang Nan, who has won the men's and mixed doubles world titles in the past, then joined hands with Liu Cheng to notch a convincing 21-12, 21-15 victory over MR Arjun and Shlok Ramchandran. Although the scores do not reveal the closeness of the tussle, it must be said that the Indian youngsters were not overwhelmed by their opponents' imposing reputation, and stayed with them in the bulk of the rallies without being quite able to administer the coup-de-grace.
It is somewhat heartening to record that the residual part of the Indian squad in the fray did not cave in with as much lack of spine as their captain had done, but mounted a sterling challenge against the best that the Chinese could throw at them. In what was a first meeting with World No 3, Shi Yuqi, B Sai Praneeth made his 22-year-old rival sweat for 58 long minutes before the Chinese shuttler could record a 21-9, 15-21, 21-12 win.
Praneeth suffered from a bad start after losing the toss, and having been forced to play from the 'bad' side, where the sideways drift in the Impact Arena repeatedly took the shuttle out at the baseline and along the backhand sideline. Shi was ahead throughout the opening stanza by at least four points after an 8-2 initial lead, and was never headed off.
The Chinese player got a taste of his own medicine in the second game when he constantly over-hit the shuttle and found Praneeth's clears drifting down inside the baseline for the most part. Shi's superior speed and fitness was the difference between the two players in the decider, where the Chinese star stepped on the gas pedal from 5-0 and 11-4, and refused to relinquish the advantage.
For India, the performance of the day came from the untried combination of Arun George and Sanyam Shukla, who finally showed what they have learnt from Malaysian coach Tan Kim Her over the past two years. They caused Li Junhui and Liu Yuchen to have the jitters, as they defended stoutly to stay on the Chinese pair's heels throughout the match, to lose it at 15-21, 22-20, 15-21.
The Indians played most points in the first game on even terms, leaving little to choose between the two pairs. For every booming smash that Li and Liu hit, they were guilty of making infantile errors, to allow the Indians to catch up. Sadly, George and Shukla lapsed into error themselves at 15-17, and conceded four straight points, to fall behind by a game.
Although they trailed by a point or two throughout the second stanza, the Indians managed to save a match-point at 19-20, and wrested the game over the extra points from the shocked Chinese duo. George and Shukla clung on tenaciously in the decider, to be down only by a couple of points at 11-13, but then failed to match the finishing gallop of the experienced Chinese. Still, it was a show worthy of a salute.
In the fifth and final match of the tie, teenager Lakshya Sen clashed with the legendary Lin Dan for the second time in a month, and had a 'dÃ©jÃ vu' moment. Their duel at Bangkok's Impact Arena unfolded on exactly the same lines as had their clash in the New Zealand Open last month " with Sen running away with the first game, and then being brought to book in no uncertain manner, in the next two.
The Indian must have learnt a valuable lesson yet again from the crafty veteran southpaw " how to husband his energy over a long match. Sen employed the smash indiscriminately in the first game with all the vim and vigour of youth, and pocketed it at 21-16.
But the wily old-timer had prolonged the rallies sufficiently in that lung-opener to ensure that his youthful antagonist lost steam in the next two. Sen was so much of a physical wreck thereafter that he failed to achieve double digits in the next two games. The Indian lost the 51-minute encounter at 21-16, 9-21, 8-21, to concede the final leg of the 5-0 Indian 'whitewash' at China's hands.
If the Indian women lived to fight another day, it was only because they had a rest day on Tuesday. Their third and final Group A match of the Uber Cup tournament against the No 1 seeds, Japan, is scheduled for 2 pm (12.30 pm IST) on Wednesday.
After their 1-4 opening day loss against Canada, the Indian girls have virtually sealed their fate, and will need nothing short of a twin miracle to make the last eight " a win against the powerful Japanese, combined with a victory by Australia against the Canadians.