The days of putting your country above individual glory in sport appear to be long gone. At least, it appears so in badminton, when one looks at the names of the players who will be representing India at the Thomas and Uber Cup team finals at the Impact Arena in Bangkok from Sunday.
With a full-strength squad, India would have stood a decent chance of a medal in both the men's and women's categories. But in the absence of Kidambi Srikanth, PV Sindhu, Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and N Sikki Reddy, the chances of progressing beyond the quarter-final stage seem remote. In fact, the women might find it a challenge to even make the quarter-final grade.
Of the top players missing from the team lists, Sindhu claims to be less than fully fit, and has put self before country. This last sentiment has been echoed by Srikanth who, though fully fit, has expressed a desire to skip this non-compulsory team event, in order to concentrate on training for the individual tournaments on the South-East Asian leg of the World Tour that follow the Bangkok event.
The other two players had reasonable reasons for skipping this stellar biennial team event. Sikki Reddy is reportedly down with typhoid, while Rankireddy has not trained much after his best outing this year at the All-England Championships in Birmingham in mid-May, preferring to concentrate all his energies on getting through his Std XII board examinations.
It is with a sense of deep loss that one views the unfortunate absence of the Rankireddy-Chirag Shetty combine, for the two would have really bolstered the chances of the Indian team in the five-match Thomas Cup ties, particularly beyond the quarter-final stage, when the matches get really tough.
Srikanth and HS Prannoy would have been strong bets against virtually any singles opposition in the world, and their efforts would have been brilliantly complemented by Rankireddy-Shetty, who have had some tremendous performances of late, including a heart-wrenching 21-23 third-game loss to the veteran Danish combination of Mathias Boe and Carsten Mogensen in the second round of the All England Championships. Boe and Mogensen went all the way to the final, where they went down to the top-ranked Indonesian pairing of Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo and Marcus Fernaldi Gideon.
Thus, with the top Indian men's doubles pair not participating, and the best women's pair of Ashwini Ponnappa and Sikki Reddy being unable to play together because of the latter's indisposition, India's chances of pulling out at least one of the two doubles matches in each of the men's and women's sections have been greatly reduced.
The format in this premier team competition features 16 squads of ten members each, drawn in four groups of four teams each, playing a round-robin league at the initial stage. The top two teams from each pool go through to the play-off quarter-finals, where a fresh draw is made in order to avoid teams trying to 'fix' their last-eight stage encounters.
The teams ending top of their respective pools are 'placed' in the new draw, so that they avoid meeting each other in the quarter-finals. The last-eight stage will feature clashes between a group-topper and a group runner-up; and thus, there remains a one-in-four chance of meeting in the quarter-finals, the same team you played at the group stage.
The Indian Thomas Cup squad, led by World No 9 Prannoy, should have little difficulty making the quarter-final stage, for they have been drawn in Group A with the likes of formidable top-seeded China, France and Australia. The Indians will play France on Sunday, 20 May at 7.30 am, Australia on Monday at 5.30 pm and powerhouse China on Tuesday, again at 5.30 pm.
With matches being played in descending order of ranking, it will be the highest-ranked Indian, skipper Prannoy, placed at No 9 in the Badminton World Federation (BWF) rankings, taking on Frenchman Brice Leverdez, ranked 23rd in the world, in the opening singles. The 25-year-old Prannoy has improved enormously in the past year, while Leverdez, at 32 one of the veterans of the circuit, remains a dangerous floater.
The two have a 1-1 record in career head-to-heads, with Prannoy winning their first encounter narrowly at the 2015 All England, and Leverdez turning the tables on his adversary at the 2016 Canada Open in July that year, again by the proverbial rat's whisker. Prannoy actually had a match-point in the second game, but went on to lose it at 21-23, and then the match at 18-21 in the decider.
It will then be up to World No 18, B Sai Praneeth, to take on Lucas Corvee, who comes in at 43rd in the BWF rankings. It is irrelevant that the two have met once earlier, with the Indian winning easily, since that meeting took place five years back, when neither player was a force on the international circuit. Praneeth should have this match under control.
For the third singles, India is likely to enter Sameer Verma, unless the team management would consider taking a calculated risk, and putting up 16-year-old prodigy, Lakshya Sen, against this relatively weaker team. Blooding Sen into international team play against either France or Australia would be a great idea, as he is a player for the future.
The doubles department will be manned by the national champions Manu Attri and B Sumeeth Reddy, and the India No 1 ranked pair (an anomaly in this points-dominated system of national rankings) of Arun George and Sanyam Shukla. Lurking in the wings will be the duo of Shlok Ramchandran and MR Arjun, who have had some encouraging results in recent international tournaments.
With all the Indian players ranked well above their French counterparts, it would come as a huge surprise if India do not wrap up this opening tie by at least a 4-1 margin, on the eve of their clash against an equally weak Australia.
In the Uber Cup, India have been drawn again in Group A with top seeds Japan, Australia and Canada, and will have their hands full attempting to subdue even the minnows in the group.
The country's hopes rest entirely on Saina Nehwal, who recently made her way back into the top ten, where she has belonged for the past seven to eight years. With Sindhu opting out of the competition on grounds of insufficient fitness, there is no worthwhile player to man the second and third singles slots. Even Ruthvika Shivani is missing from the fray; and India will have to place their hopes on Sri Krishna Priya Kudaravalli and Vaishnavi Bhale, relative strangers to international competition.
The Indian women will have matters not to their liking against both Canada and Australia, and clearly have no chance at all against Japan. Saina's team faces the Canadians on Sunday, 20 May, the Australians the following day, and the star-studded Japanese squad on Tuesday.
There is every chance that Saina will deliver the first match against Michelle Li, whom she has beaten in both of their earlier two meetings, although the most recent of these straight-games wins took place at the 2016 All England Championships, a few months before her career-threatening knee injury, and at a time when Saina was an undisputed top-three player.
All four subsequent matches are in the laps of the Gods. Brittney Tam and Rachel Hondereich have substantially more experience than Kudaravalli and Bhale in the singles department; and the Indian doubles combinations of Meghana Jakkampudi-Poorvisha S Ram and Prajakta Sawant-Sanyogita Ghorpade do not inspire much confidence, even though their French counterparts are also relatively unsung.
It would probably be best for the Indian badminton fan to not entertain hopes that the Indian women might find well beyond their capacity to fulfill.