"My biggest worry is the huge gap in TV viewership for badminton and cricket," says BAI President in exclusive interview
The Karnataka Badminton Association in Bengaluru was buzzing as the junior badminton team gathered for the send-off ceremony prior to departing for the Asian Junior Championship and World Junior Championship.
The chief guest for the event was Dr. Himanta Biswa Sarma, the President of the Badminton Association of India, who firstly congratulated the young shuttlers on being selected to represent the country and followed it up by laying out an in-depth analysis of how badminton as a sport is on a steady rise and attributed that to the undying efforts put in by the players and the management.
Sportskeeda caught up with Dr. Sarma in an exclusive chat and gathered his thoughts in an all-encompassing interview on the current situation of badminton in India and how the BAI is working to take the sport higher and higher!
Here is the interview in full!
Q. Since your tenure as BAI President started in April, what is the biggest thing that has changed in Indian badminton, in your opinion?
A: I have not done anything to change the outlook of Indian badminton, I am only trying to add to the existing methodologies. But yes, the streamlining of some rules is one massive change. Nowadays, the prize money which is promised to the players is given to them immediately once they win, unlike a year or two back when the bank would hold it back. Also, we have made it a compulsion for all senior players to play in national level competitions.
Similarly, we have made it mandatory for the junior level players to undergo training camps ahead of the international championships in order to fine-tune their skills. In addition to this, we have new models such as offering scholarships to junior players and have also laid out plans for coaching centres in five states in India.
BAI wise, it's been a massive year for us since we have finally shifted our main office in a short span of time to a workspace like atmosphere, shifting from the makeshift office we had in a rented house since the last few years. However, our main focus continues to lie in improving the badminton in our country.
Q. India's top male shuttlers have been smashing record after record. Your thoughts on their mercurial rise? What would you attribute their success to?
A. You see, India is a huge country of many talented badminton players apart from the five in the top 20 currently. So, going by the size and abundance of talent, I feel it is a necessity to have so many top-ranked players from our country. In spite of that, we did not have so many ranks in the top but now the men are doing very well, which is a very good thing for us.
I believe that if these players continue to perform to their fullest potential, this rise will continue. Not only these five men, there are many more youngsters waiting in the wings to make it big when given a chance. So I am sure that this trend will continue and men's badminton will bring more laurels in the near future.
Q. At the media conclave in May, a reference had been made to McDonald's and the need for standardised coaching centres across India. How much progress has been made in that aspect?
A. That is a process that we are trying to implement in the near future. As I said earlier, we are trying to open regional coaching centres in five states and we have already proposed the plan to those states. We have requested them for either land or some facility that already exists in order to start the academy.
Of course, we cannot make a move without the state's approval, so we are in constant talks with the government formally and informally and I am sure that this plan will be executed soon enough.
Q. India's junior players have done considerably well in international tournaments. When do you envision India becoming a badminton superpower?
A. To be honest, Indian badminton has seen a stellar rise in the past couple of years. There is a lot of euphoria surrounding the badminton fraternity. Several coaching academies are playing their part to increase the talent pool and the interesting part is that many of our former players now coach these juniors in the academies.
This is because coaching has now transformed into a career for many of our former players. So this sums up how much of importance badminton is being given and I am sure the sport will be a superpower soon. In fact, we are sort of a superpower as nowadays, India's shuttlers are ranked very high and provide more than just stiff competition to other countries.
Of course, there are issues in the doubles category, but in the singles department, we have excellent talent. So I believe that the commitment, hard work being put into practice and matches by players and their coaches is showing.
Q. There were some talks about badminton players getting central contracts from the BAI just like the way BCCI awards contracts to cricketers. Any progress made in this regard?
A. We have slightly modified that idea which initially was discussed upon. Since our resources are very less, it makes it that much more difficult to give contracts to senior players. So instead of contracts, we have decided to give away scholarships to prodigious talents. This model means that we will be giving 20 players scholarships ranging from 25,000 to 50,000 rupees a month. In some time, we are also planning to increase the number of players from 20 to 100.
You see, at the national level, the players get some sort of endorsement since they are recognised. Whereas at the junior level, the full burden falls on the shoulders of the parents and owing to the economic pressure, we lose a lot of good talent.
This scheme seems to be a perfect way ahead and I am sure it will help many players in the near future. So for this year, the biggest innovation is the scholarships to young talent.
Q. It was announced that all senior players will play in the nationals. How important a step is that in your opinion? What impact will it have in the overall scenario of the sport in India?
A. That will help leaps and bounds as the players who do not attend camps and national level training will have this as a stage to interact with their role models and play alongside their idols. Many players from all over the country have not got a chance to play with the likes of Saina, Sindhu and this is a chance for them to play with these world-class players.
This will also serve as an opportunity for those fringe players to assess their game and receive tips from the superstars. Who knows, there may be some happy surprises along the way! In addition to this, the game gets a lot of recognition with familiar faces taking part in the tournament.
This decision was also taken in a bid to encourage the youngsters to aim higher and instigate the hunger in them to raise their game by some extra margins. When the big names play in the nationals, they are sure to rub off some confidence on the youngsters, which could only be a good thing for Indian badminton!
Q. Para-badminton is set to make its debut in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. What steps is the BAI taking to prepare India's players for the event?
A. In India, the para-badminton section has its own association. Although it falls under the bracket of badminton as a whole, the association constantly engages the players in activities and hold training sessions, which we do not wish to interrupt.
Having said that, we will always be there to support them, be it in the form of coaching, support staff, anything for that matter of fact.
Q. After PV Sindhu and Saina Nehwal, there seems to be a considerable gap when it comes to India players in the women's singles rankings. Also, there is no shuttler who has shown that she can challenge the two big names anytime soon. Is that an area of concern?
A. Yes, unfortunately for us, after Sindhu and Saina, the next best set of female shuttlers are still being groomed at the U-19 stage. One can see that the U-19 female shuttlers play extremely well and will be ready to reach the highest stage in a couple of years.
However, I agree there is a gap and we can only wish that Saina and Sindhu continue to bring laurels to the country before the next set of talented shuttlers put a foot into the international scenario.
However, the coaches tell me that there is a lot of hard work and persistence going into preparing them for the international scene and you can definitely expect one or two, if not more to represent India in the next couple of years.
Q. Your comments on the controversy regarding junior shuttler Vaishnavi Jakka Reddy's withdrawal from the World Junior Championships?
A. On a personal note, I believe it was not a controversy. It was a mere misunderstanding that we only wanted to solve as soon as possible. Without a shadow of a doubt, she is a very talented player and we would have loved to have her on the team.
However, the selection panel unanimously decided that she was better in the doubles category. Gayatri has been performing phenomenally and hence was picked for the singles category. There was no favouritism involved and all the decisions were taken considering only good for the team. Unfortunately, she backed out and we could not persist any further.
Q. What would you single out as the biggest area of concern in Indian badminton that needs the most urgent attention?
A. As I have said before, the performance in the doubles category is slightly concerning and this is one of the prime areas of focus. For a long time, the singles category has flourished while the doubles category has slightly fallen out.
However, coaches across many academies are putting in their best effort while on the lookout for prospective pairs who can take on other pairs in the doubles scenario and I'm sure that after the junior championships, we may have the answer to that question.
The BAI is also taking more steps to ensure that a lot of effort is put into nurturing the talent such that not only do they excel in singles, the coaching is held in such a way that it fosters team spirit, one of the key traits that defines a pair competing in the doubles clashes.
Q. Do you feel that badminton is India's number two sport? Do you see it overtaking cricket as the top sport in India?
A. See, I believe badminton is India's second best sport but I also firmly agree that for a sport to be famous, TV viewership is very important. Recently, we saw Saina taking on Japan's Okuhara in the semifinals of the World Championships, who also faced Sindhu in the finals after beating Saina. However, we found out that the viewership was not very high for either of the matches.
There is no doubt when it comes to the talent. There are many youngsters who are looking to make a mark and play very well in all tournaments. Unfortunately, the viewership is not like in cricket. Due to this, the first thing we need to do is popularise the sport to the masses and get more people to follow the sport.
Ultimately, all the sponsorships and funds will come from TV viewership as that is undoubtedly the best recognition for anybody. That is my only worry, the gap between viewership of cricket matches and badminton matches. This is the one reason we are struggling. So for now, my team needs to work on the ground level to ensure that more people are inclined toward watching badminton matches and follow the sport fully.
Q. On a personal note, what has been the most satisfying achievement in Indian badminton since you assumed the BAI president's post?
A. I am happy to say that the best thing that has happened is the participation of Indian badminton players in the final of all the major championships excluding only the Japan Open.
To be honest, that is a coincidence but it is really satisfying. Right from the tournament in Singapore to the one in Korea, you would have seen an Indian in the finals. Be it the men's competition or the women's competition, the Indian flag has always been flying high!
Q. Would you have any special message for the fans or the keen followers of the sport?
A. My only wish is to see the game flourish at the grassroots levels. We need to attract people's attention towards the sport at that level so that we can support the players right from the beginning and also at the international scenario, thereby giving them all the encouragement they need.
Firstly, we need to organise many competitions for the players and give them enough support to ensure that they do not lack anything mentally or physically and help them put their best foot forward.
Secondly, we need to gather attention and generate funds in order to further increase the quality of facilities and requirements. I wish to see the sport given prominence at the grassroots levels such that it gets as much attention as an India vs Australia One-Day International match.
So my humble request to people is, when you see cricket, you enjoy the rivalry. Similarly, you should also enjoy the rivalry between India's own shuttlers and the foreign shuttlers and help promote the sport.