India vs Pakistan in badminton but Sindhu, Srikanth and Co break no sweat

The scores tell the story, in full. In sport it rarely does, but consider this sequence:
a) 21-9, 21-12
b) 21-7, 21-12
c) 21-7, 21-6
d) 21-12, 21-9
e) 21-4, 21-5

That was the scoreline for India vs Pakistan in the mixed team badminton event at the 2022 Commonwealth Games. Sumeeth Reddy and Ashwini Ponappa. Srikanth Kidambi. PV Sindhu. Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty. Treesa Jolly and Gayatri Gopichand. A 5-0 start for the defending champions. There is really no polite way of putting this… There’s a reason David vs Goliath is such an endearing fairytale; in real life, it rarely happens. In real life, what happens is not pretty if you support the underdog.

For nations fed on the intensity of cricket and hockey, this was a flat atmosphere. Chirag Shetty, as is his wont, was almost always the guy with the loudest cheers, not the crowd. There were moments, though, especially when the arrivals of PV Sindhu and Srikanth Kidambi were announced. “It’s not often you get to witness a former world champion and a former world No 1 in the flesh” – a fair point made by an Indian Punjabi-origin Brummie made outside the venue – “we have never seen badminton of such a high caliber and it was too much to resist.” The theoretical, and practical, odds for an entertaining match rendered irreverent.

The Indian badminton team showed up, and how. It was a ruthless display of just how good they all are. The defending champions sent out a full strength team, making a statement of intent that resonated through the event. At the end of the day, the Sri Lankan doubles pair gave a nervous chuckle when mentioning they’re playing India tomorrow.

This was pedal-to-the-metal from easily the strongest team, on paper, in the event. PV Sindhu, usually so succinct and diplomatic in her words let slip a massive grin and a “Yeah, yeah, [the match was an easy one].” The mask came back on immediately, though. “It’s my first match,” she said. “I was also getting used to the court as well.” Before another slip, “I was trying out some new shots and seeing how the shuttle is” Everything came off, of course. “I wanted to control the shuttle in my way”. She did. She said the win was all good, but “I think it was very important that I should understand the court conditions and I have done that in this match.”

When asked about the intensity between India and Pakistan – regardless of sport – another cheeky smile came out. “I think expectations will always be there. We just have to go onto the court and give it your all. When I go into the court, it’s just the match, me and that’s all that matters.”

Kidambi Srikanth echoed those words, with another knowing chuckle at the mention of the rivalry. Before focusing inwards. “First of all, it’s my first match here at the CWG. It’ll always be a little tense, there will always be pressure moments. But it’s always good to start off with a win. It’s just about staying consistent over the next ten days.”

Srikanth was in incredible touch, as he has been for a while. “I am very happy with the way things have been going over the last one year… I’m feeling very confident, really very good. It’s just about putting it on the court. However many ever days you train, it’s really important. to play that one hour. I’m just looking forward to play as much better as possible,” he said.

In the stand where we were seated, the Pakistani mixed doubles pair of Muhammed Bhatti and Ghazala Siddique kept pointing out what Srikanth was going to do on court. On it, Murad Ali knew it too. There was simply nothing any of them could do about it. Murad would later bemoan the gap between the two nations, saying that he hoped more matches could happen between India and Pakistan – there was really no other way of improving but by playing the elite teams.

Sindhu seemed to indicate that political rivalry had no place on the court. “In sportsmanship, when we play against any athlete that friendship will always be there between the athletes,” she said. “On court we are going to play very aggressively, but I think there are a lot of different countries we play with. Some are higher [ranked] than us, some are equal, some are lower. But [that doesn’t really matter]. Every player has a different quality, different strokes and practice is definitely much needed for everyone, because it’s not just a couple of months, it takes years and years of hard work to come to a level. Even for me, I need a lot of practice and I also need to focus on my strokes every single day. Because, I can’t think ‘yes I’ve won a medal and that’s that. It doesn’t matter [in the now]. It’s over. There’s always a lot more to learn.”

Sindhu talked about how confident she was feeling, especially after the win at the Singapore Open, but every match counts, mentioning the unmatched pride one gets when wearing the India jersey. What she didn’t mention was that if she was at her best, or anywhere close, it is going to be a no-contest. Regardless of who stands before her in Birmingham.

Srikanth stressed that no complacency had set – as if you needed further proof – but said that the ultimate goal is definitely gold. “We are not really thinking of the negative sides of it,” he said. “What if we lose the semifinal or the final or any match, whatever it is… We want to just keep on playing well. That’s it.” What went unsaid is that the rest will flow.

And if that happens, watch out the Davids of the CWG. Goliath isn’t messing about.

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