Nagpur Nationals draws the crowds and also the chaos


Unless you were Saina Nehwal or PV Sindhu, security staff at the Mankapur divisional sports complex didn't seem to believe you had any business being there on Wednesday.

In the minutes leading up to the men's doubles final, Chirag Shetty, who was to team up on court with Satwiksairaj Rankireddy, was caught between irate spectators and unmoving cops. It was after a fair bit of cajoling that security personnel half-heartedly favoured the 20 year-old to wriggle in. A relieved Chirag was then seen darting across to the court.

Flared tempers, heated arguments, fisticuffs, pushing, shoving, jostling, gates being banged shut, and all of this for entry into the final day's action of the senior badminton nationals. Yes, the nationals. Until this time, players barely turned up for the annual domestic event, leave alone spectators.

But with star names on the line-up in this preened, 'new-look' edition, it was bound to be different. The mother of all battles - Saina vs Sindhu - making for an apt finale and political royalty choosing to grace the occasion, had cops stationed at entry points flipping out. Inside the venue, festivity and delirium in a weekday crowd, most of who had probably called in sick from work, was heartening for a sport which wasn't cricket or football.

Then there was the lady compere on the dais who at first seemed was trying her hand at a joke with a kindergarten teacher: "Ab shor machana bandh karo. (Now stop making noise)" chide to the audience ahead of the Saina-Sindhu match. Turned out she was dead serious.

Determined to finish reading from her diligent notes, she soldiered on even after the match, unmindful of Saina offering her thoughts courtside. It was only after one of the dignitaries on the dais pleaded her to stop were the crowds spared of any further misery.

But for a few things that didn't go to script, it was a tournament that had the Tier 2 city's loyalty through the week. It didn't matter that they didn't know names of all players, barring the biggies, they saw on court. What mattered was that they were there despite it.

Cheers went up every time Saina or Sindhu strided in, the latter hard to miss from a mile in her bright fluorescent orange jacket with scraps of paper hurriedly torn from school notebooks being handed down to often-obliging volunteers for autographs.

For some in the crowds like homemaker Ritu Kumar, 43, it was more an exercise in accompanying a petulant teen who has now established a new-found interest in the racket sport. "My daughter is a huge Sindhu fan and every time her match is on TV she leaves aside all her books even if it's a day before exams. I brought her to watch the match on the promise that she'd stay away from TV for the next two months," says Ritu, "I didn't expect though that this would be such a great experience for me. I think I'll break our pact." It could have been one of many such similar stories at the stands.

Indian badminton is on match point and the onus is on the men who run it to turn it into a winner.