India begin their campaign at the Badminton Asia Mixed Team Championships on Tuesday in Dubai with a fit-again PV Sindhu but without the injured Satwiksairaj Rankireddy. With Asia being the sport's powerhouse, this continental championship will be a crucial challenge for the Indian team.
India are placed in Group B alongside hosts UAE, Malaysia and Kazakhstan. The top two teams from each of the four groups qualify for the quarter-finals and India's toughest opponents in the group will be Commonwealth Games champions Malaysia, who they lost to in the final at Birmingham. Barring any major upsets, India should reach the knockouts, unlike the last edition in 2019.
Kazakhstan will be India's first opponent in their Group B tie on Tuesday morning. This will mark the return to action for India's top stars after a brief break post the India Open and Indonesia Masters in January. India's biggest strength will be in singles, with Top 10 players Sindhu, HS Prannoy and Lakshya Sen in the squad.
World No 7 Sindhu has fully recovered from a stress fracture that kept her out of action for five months last year and led to a scratchy start to the new season in the Malaysia Open and India Open at home. Sindhu's backup in the women's singles is 32nd-ranked Aakarshi Kashyap, who won the Bangladesh International Challenge last month.
However, India were dealt a blow in the doubles as the pair of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty - who were instrumental in India winning their first-ever Thomas Cup last year - will not be in action. Chirag will partner Dhruv Kapila in Satwik's absence, who has pulled out of the event due to a hip injury. In Satwik's absence, it'll be difficult to deliver against the top men's combinations from other Asian countries. The other Indian pair in the men's doubles are Krishna Prasad Garga and Vishnuvardhan Goud P.
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Commonwealth Games bronze medallists Treesa Jolly and Gayatri Gopichand will be the lead pair in women's doubles with Ashwini Bhat and Shikha Gautam as back-up. Ishaan Bhatnagar and Tanisha Crasto will be the only Indian pair to shoulder the mixed doubles duties.
Despite this, Lakshya Sen expects India to sail into the quarter-finals. "We have a strong team. The draw of the group stage is okay, should not be difficult. I think we can qualify for the quarter-final. In knockout, it will be one match at a time," Sen told PTI.
The Badminton Asia Mixed Team Championships return after three years as the 2021 edition was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. India made the quarter-finals in the inaugural edition in 2017, while they failed to get past the group stage in 2019.
Seventeen countries will fight it out for the continental crown in the event to be held from February 14 to 19 at the Dubai Exhibition Centre. China, Japan, Indonesia, and Malaysia are the top four seeds in the tournament.
With Inputs from PTI