Sudirman Cup a blip, or the new norm? Indian badminton faces tough questions ahead of Asian Games

PV Sindhu Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

On May 15, exactly a year after India won a historic first Thomas Cup title (the men's team world championship), India were knocked out in the group stage of the Sudirman Cup (the mixed team world championship) after a 5-0 loss to Malaysia.

It came a day after a 4-1 loss to Chinese Taipei in the opener, sealing India's fate within two days and continuing the search for an elusive medal at one of badminton's biggest team competitions.

The stark difference between the two results a year apart raises questions, as a crucial period begins with the Asian Games and Olympic qualification cycle commencing.

Even in what was dubbed the 'Group of Death' with two very good teams up against them, these margins of loss (4-1 and 5-0) are a bit of a let-down. Especially since the hope of another historic first medal was founded on the team's recent good performances.

In February this year, India had beaten Malaysia 4-1 in the group stage of the Badminton Asia Mixed Team Championships, months after losing the Commonwealth Games final to them. That result - which meant India avoided China in the quarterfinal and reach the semis to secure a medal - felt like the extension of Indian badminton's prolific era.

So, what changed?

In the same format, against mostly the same team, in a span of a few months, there were wildly contrasting fortunes.

Then, the first match was men's singles and HS Prannoy came from a game down to seal a thrilling 18-21, 21-13, 25-23 win over world no 4 Lee Zii Jia.

Now, India opted for Kidambi Srikanth after Prannoy lost to Chou Tien-chen a day before, and the former world No 1 had a horrid outing. He was constantly error-prone while going down 16-21, 11-21 to the current world No 8 Lee Zii Jia. By the end, it was all one-way traffic as Srikanth kept sending shots long and failed to make it a fight in just the second match of the tie.

The tie started with mixed doubles, which has long been India's weak spot. It was compounded by Ishaan Bhatnagar's injury at the Nationals, which meant that the scratch pair of Dhruv Kapila and Ashwini Ponnappa faced the world No 8 pair of Goh Soon Huat and Shevon Lai Jemie - with predictable results.

India were already going into this contest one down and the onus was on the singles stars to ensure the men's and women's doubles had something to play for. If there was to be one 'easy' win against Malaysia, it had to be in women's singles where India's PV Sindhu is a veteran.

In February, Sindhu played Ling Ching Wong in the tie against Malaysia and won with ease. Now, Sindhu was made to battle in a tough three-setter, losing to world No 30 Goh Jin Wei for the first time in five matches - including two at the CWG. It came a day after she ran Tai Tzu Ying close and played one of her better matches since her five-month injury layoff.

The 21-14, 10-21, 20-22 scoreline alludes to the rollercoaster it was. Sindhu cruised through the first game and struggled through the second. In the decider, she was down 2-11 at the halfway interval and all seemed lost before she mounted a stunning fightback.

She won 12 of the next 15 points to make it 14-15 and then drew level at 19-19, before saving a match point for 20-20. Two quick shots and Goh had sealed the match, and the tie for Malaysia. "At 20-20, I felt there should have been a bit more rallies. My strokes hit my frame and went mid-court and she finished it off," Sindhu later said.

The tie was done and dusted already by the time recent Asian champions Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty played their nemeses, world champions Aaron Chia and Soh Wooi Yik. They made it a match in both games but could not prevent an eighth straight loss, 18-21, 19-21.

The final match was women's doubles, where in February Gayatri Gopichand and Treesa Jolly had stunned Commonwealth Games champions Pearly Tan and Thinaah Muralitharan 23-21, 21-15 to give India the win. This time, it was another straight-games loss.

Indeed except Sindhu, no other Indian managed to force a decider against Malaysia. Against Chinese Taipei, all matches except Prannoy went to the third game, with only Gayatri and Treesa winning.

It's not a good look for India. It's no disaster to lose to better teams but the 4-1 and 5-0 margins don't accurately reflect the ability of this team. The lack of fight, even in a loss, was a big blip. However, the silver lining is simply the fact that there were expectations at an event as big as the Sudirman Cup, where India has never won a medal and only three countries have won gold.

Indian badminton has been on the rise as a team and that brings with it its own kind of pressure. Sindhu has learned to handle this, but most others are still new to it.

The biggest lesson therefore is consistency. At the Thomas Cup last year, India had three men's singles players in good form that made the historic win possible. At the Sudirman Cup, only one player per discipline is allowed and that should have been a strength for India. Indeed, they swapped Prannoy for Srikanth in the hope that his good run of form (he beat Lakshya Sen last week at the national selection trials for the Asian Games) could work for India.

But that was not to be, as no Indian men's singles player has made a mark this season yet as they had last year. Lakshya Sen has fallen down to the 20s in the world ranking already. And while Satwik and Chirag's performance here can be written off as a blip, given they came in dead rubbers, they still were losses for a pair in red-hot form.

As the Olympic cycle begins, consistency is going to be key for India. It is too soon to read too much into this performance and there are positives to count as well. Sindhu fighting it out like her pre-surgery self is a good sign, for example. But these two lopsided results have also highlighted that Indian badminton has a lot of work to do as the race to Paris 2024 begins.