Opening day: Let’s be optimistic about the IBL

Dev Sukumar
Modified 15 Aug 2013

Indian Badminton players Jwala Gutta of Delhi Smashers (L), Saina Nehwal of Hyderabad Hotshots (2L), Germany’s Mark Zweibler of Mumbai Masters (C), Denmark’s Carsten Mogensen of Banga Beats (2R) and India’s Ashwini Ponappa of Pune Pistons (R) at the unveiling of the Indian Badminton League trophy on August 13, 2013 in New Delhi, India. New franchise-based million-dollar team event Indian Badminton League ( IBL ) will be held from August 14-31 across six Indian cities. (Photo by Vipin Kumar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

It wasn’t quite the ideal start, but it will have to do. The Indian Badminton League was launched with a laser show, acrobats and dancers in front of a stadium that was disappointingly short of an expected full house. Still, it was a start, and a milestone for Indian and world badminton.

Saina Nehwal read out the players’ oath, which was followed by speeches from BAI President Akhilesh Das and Sporty Solutionz CEO Ashish Chadha.

The press today is likely to highlight the shortcomings of the opening day: the ceremony lacked fizz; spectator stands were only about a third full, and there were no Bollywood stars to cater to TV cameras. But it’s always better to dwell on the positives. Those used to the international circuit were treated to never-before-seen sights.

Where else would one get to see greats like Tine Baun and Taufik Hidayat sitting amidst junior India players; or Juliane Schenk cheering for Sourabh Verma (Pune Pistons); or the accomplished mixed doubles player Joachim Fischer sharing his vision of the game with Ashwini Ponnappa? In the notoriously insular world that is badminton, the IBL is a starting step for freer interaction of the world’s badminton players. Something similar happened during the Axiata Cup earlier this year, in which Ashwini and India teammate Tarun Kona had participated.

The scoring format of the league (the first to reach 21 wins the game; the third game to be played for 11 points) will take time getting used to. Players appeared in a hurry to win points. Better ranked players will be keen to finish the match in two games, for the third is a lottery; lower-ranked players will therefore put everything into the first game to win it and take their chances in the third.

The first match of the IBL – between Sai Praneeth of Delhi Smashers and Tien Minh of Vietnam/Pune Pistons – followed this script. Tien Minh was a bronze medal winner at the World Championships last week, and has been a consistent top-ten player over the last decade. Sai Praneeth is an exciting talent, ranked 37 to Tien Minh’s 7. In a conventional points format, Tien Minh would be the favourite.

But yesterday, Praneeth completely dictated play, scoring with his quick half-smashes and leaving Tien Minh short of answers. Both were in a rush for points, and one didn’t get to see many rallies. With two breaks in each game, lesser-fit players can be confident of causing upsets. Taufik Hidayat of Hyderabad Hotshots could well be the player to watch out for. His main problem in recent times has been fitness, but in this format, he could well beat anybody.

The opening ceremony had a laser show, a juggling act, an acrobatic performance by a dancer with a hoola hoop and a Bollywood song-and-dance routine. It wasn’t the brightest beginning, but for a sport like badminton, whose players have grown up playing in empty halls at ungodly hours during domestic events, it must have been a nice experience. Some have commanded astronomical sums during the auction, and they are at the centre of it all.

An event of this nature cannot compare with cricket, for cricket rules the passions of millions of Indians and others worldwide. With the clout the BCCI enjoys, it is far easier for cricket to pull off a mega event like the IPL than it is for badminton. To have some of the best badminton players participating in an Indian event is surely cause for celebration. The control of badminton has been under national federations, and it isn’t easy getting diverse stakeholders on board.

Things will turn around if the organisers can ensure that stands aren’t empty (how difficult is it to fill stands in India?), and a full house crowd can have an electric effect. A league where international players get to mingle with one another and think outside their nationalistic boundaries can only be good for the game.

Published 15 Aug 2013
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