For most badminton fans in India, this week's Nationals in Nagpur were nothing short of a revelation. Top names and crowds -- least suspecting elements at the usually bland, annual domestic event - were there in full numbers and exuberance. So just how was this tournament, which had over the years been as good as dead, resurrected to its most recent effervescent form?
A lot of it (you might not hear this too often in other sport) had to do with the appointment of the new Badminton Association of India (BAI) president Himanta Biswa Sarma this year. Starting with the conclave held in May shortly after he took charge, efforts to persuade top players to revive the sagging popularity of the tournament begun. It eventually stretched to more than plain persuasion. Top players, it is reliably learnt, were paid an appearance fee and were requested to voluntarily agree to an undertaking that their failure to show up for the tournament would mean that the federation could choose not to fund their expenses on the circuit.
"The players were only told that everybody wanted them to play the Nationals and that they should suggest how to make that happen," said a source close to the development. "One of their primary concerns was playing from the first stages of the tournament, which were then tailored to allow their direct last 16-stage entry. It wouldn't be fair to say they were pressurized in any way, it was more of an understanding and they also recognized that without their presence in domestic events, to spur and sustain interest in the sport among people in the country would be difficult."
The rather odd scheduling of the tournament with the finals falling on a Wednesday, was also drawn up keeping the players' preference and packed calendar in mind. This, he says, was the only available window for players between the French and China Open Super Series. However, despite being a weekday the stands were packed to the rafters for the finals with a fair amount of crowds being turned away from the gates. Next year with two mega-events in the Asian and Commonwealth Games, BAI has left it completely to players' convenience to pick a comfortable slot for the event.
"Though it was hectic for us since we've had a string of tournaments before and another couple more ahead, I think just the way the tournament was conducted, the facilities provided and the crowd turn-out leaves no room for complaint," says Indian doubles player Pranaav Jerry Chopra.
The Nationals next year is likely to be held in Guwahati and both the federation and players were surprised and encouraged by spectators' enthusiasm this time. "Just to see crowds through the week, not just the finals was a very satisfying feeling for all of us," adds Pranaav, who played his second Nationals this time, finishing runners-up in mixed doubles event.
After a top private channel refused to beam the Nationals live, BAI was left with no other option but to approach the national broadcaster and settle for its staid, droning commentary and boring angles. Following the heightened interest this year, BAI is hoping to take it a notch higher next year and turn it into a viable brand. "We want this (top players participating) to be a continued pattern, not just a one-off thing. Players have been quite willing to chip in whatever way they can and that's given us a lot of confidence," said BAI secretary Anup Narang.
Beyond the Nationals too, the federation is keen on the sport percolating to the grassroots. A proposal is in the works for BAI entering into a partnership with Tata to take badminton to 400 schools, which have the necessary infrastructure, across India. The idea is to train PE teachers of these schools in the sport so they can in turn coach students. Inter-school competitions will then be conducted by BAI which will pick students for the district-level, going on to the state and national level.
"It's a mega project that we have in mind," says BAI treasurer Ashok Bajaj. "So we have planned it in five stages so that these students who are picked from schools can also be taken into our top academies once they've progressed to an advanced stage." BAI is also planning to set up its own academy spread across 15 acres in Gurgaon.
There's a lot that's going well for Indian badminton right now and the key would lie in not letting the momentum slip.