Friday, September 18, 2020

Smart move by Olympic hopeful shuttlers to seek ranking points in Denmark

Since 2020 is no longer an Olympic year, it makes sense for those in contention for a berth at Tokyo's badminton competition to head to the Denmark Open scheduled to be played in Odense from October 13 to 18.
Besides being the first event since international badminton was suspended due to the global Covid19 pandemic, it is also a test of how the game would emerge in the empty arenas which are mandatory at the moment. 
Badminton World Federation may have bowed to popular sentiment to defer the Thomas and Uber Cup team competition to next year but gave the go-ahead to the Denmark Open possibly to test the waters.
After all Europe has seen several sports, including football, Formula One and cricket, resume activity in a strictly controlled environment and so far there has not been any major mishap bar the Adria Tour exhibition tennis.
Given the fear as well restrictions on international travel, the Denmark Open may hardly see any big names from Asia since most countries had already pulled out of the TUC. So it could offer easy picking for someone like London bronze medalist Saina Nehwal who needs to move up four places to grab a second qualifying spot for India behind reigning world champion PV Sindhu.
Saina is ranked 20 while Sindhu is placed seventh in BWF ranking frozen since end-March, 2020, right after the All-England Championship. 
Sindhu, quite on expected lines, has decided to give Denmark a miss and instead focus on the home front which had even put her playing in the Uber Cup in doubt. Since there is no national duty involved, its the world champion's prerogative to pick and choose her return to the international circuit.
The complex Olympic qualifying norm for singles allows two players from a country only if both are ranked in the top 16. The singles draw of 38-plus accounts for quotas for continents which were unable to make the grade through the rankings. Obviously, Asia has no such luxuries since more than half of the 38 would be from the largest continent anyway.
That leaves those not in the top 16 to fight for survival indeed.
Much like Saina, her husband Parupalli Kashyap too seeks an Olympic berth though his current 24 rank virtually rules him out as Sai Praneeth (13) and Kidambi Srikanth (14) are way ahead. Of course, both men's singles exponents must protect their ranking points till April 29, 2021, when the Tokyo-bound participants will be finalised.
With that in mind, perhaps, both Kashyap and Srikanth are headed to Odense as is Lakshya Sen, rank 27. 
Doubles is a far tougher field with BWF allowing only a draw of 16 for Olympics.
While the Indian men's doubles pair of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty are ranked 10 and all but sure to make the cut, the other pair of Manu Attri and Sumeeth Reddy stands little chance since for two entries from any single country both pairs must be ranked in the top eight.
Similarly, there is little doubt that the women's and mixed doubles hardly stand any chance of presenting an Indian challenge in Tokyo, given that the best ranking for the country presently stands at 28 and 27 respectively. 
Pulling up into the top 16 would be a Herculean task in itself and hence no Indian doubles pair has opted to play in Denmark.
Without doubt Denmark Open will be a test case in more ways than one. Apart from low Asian turnout, the event will also be closely monitored to evaluate whether the game flourishes or wilts in cavernous indoor arenas.
Besides the players, the game of badminton itself has plenty at stake in Odense!

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Pandemic taking a heavy toll on sports across disciplines

Sports is all about contests and rivalries but the current global pandemic due to the Covid19 virus infection seems to have put the entire eco-system to severe test.
Withdrawals by Asian and African teams forced the Badminton World Federation to call off the Thomas and Uber cup tournaments scheduled to be played in Denmark from October 3 to 11. Though the Denmark Open will go ahead from October 13 to 18 at Odense, the Masters to follow has been shelved as well.
That the team competitions, so enthusiastically announced to herald the return of competitive badminton, have been cancelled for 2020 altogether is both sad and comforting. There is definitely not going to be any cavalier attitude in getting things going back on court. Especially since badminton is an indoor sport, not able to survive without air-conditioning.
Out in the New York sunshine, the US Open tennis tournament went ahead without several top stars and the rescheduled French Open may not see a full complement of top players either since the organisers, so far, plan to allow spectators into Roland Garros. 
The first tennis event with populated stands may prove to be a test case for all sports.
England may have kept cricket from falling apart even though it has been anything but easy. Players falling foul of the bio-secure procedures were not uncommon, and teams sometimes had to do without leading performers for the sake of safety all round.
In such a scenario, the Indian Premier League could provide the balm for stressed nerves if all goes well with the tournament in the United Arab Emirates. Even though there have been significant player withdrawals for various reasons, IPL continues to march ahead to keep its date with the September 19 start.
No such good fortune for the Lanka Premier League which has revised its schedule to a  November 14 start, less than a week after the IPL is done and dusted, provided all goes to plan. LPL has found few takers right from its failed 2011 launch. The repackaged version of the Sri Lanka Premier League has reduced participation to five teams instead of the original seven. Yet there is a struggle to find willing owners, only one team of the five having seen success so far.
Football in Europe continues with its share of hiccups. London giants Chelsea had a double- figure players' list in quarantine as did several other clubs as the new season kicked-off with empty stands but no lack to drama.
Ditto for France where Ligue 1 action got underway with a flurry of cards. 
Other European domestic football leagues are yet to get into action and perhaps French Open tennis could prove an acid test if seats can indeed be filled even if it is only a fraction of the capacity.
Contact sports like wrestling, boxing, etc. have next to no chance of seeing any real action this calendar year.
Motorsports remains on track with a carefully calibrated schedule that keeps a majority of events in Europe itself, thus avoiding inter-continental travel until the final weeks.
It will take a massive effort to get things back on track in the sporting world. Perhaps the Tokyo Olympics in July 2021 could be the torch-bearer for recovery!    .

Monday, September 14, 2020

Synthetic feathers appear the way forward for badminton

The cat is finally out of the bag!
Indian shuttlers had their national camp cancelled prior to the resumption of important international events like the Thomas and Uber cups because neither the Badminton Association of India nor the Sports Authority of India had enough stock of shuttle cocks.
Interestingly, nearly 90 percent of the shuttle cocks approved by Badminton World Federation for international tournaments are manufactured in China. With government of India's blanket ban on import of feathered goods from China, it is hardly any surprise that stocks were all but gone.
The ban on scheduled international flights since late March had already made the supply situation rather precarious. And on top that came the June clashes along the line of actual control between the Indian armed forces and the Chinese People's Liberation Army. Since the matters along the LAC are anything but resolved, tough decisions by the government are likely to impact sports like badminton in a massive way.
Both BAI and SAI have admitted that they received their last supplies of approved shuttle cocks in early June. Thereafter they have been looking askance as border tensions made it impossible for suppliers to meet the order commitments.
Also following withdrawal by several Asian countries, some players, including London Olympics bronze medalist Saina Nehwal, have questioned the BAI decision to participate in the upcoming events in Denmark, especially since there seems to be hardly any let up in the Covid19 pandemic.
Ideally, staying away may not be the answer, but BWF's approval of the use of synthetic feathers for shuttle cocks at all levels could not have come at a better time. The January decision comes into force only in 2021 but it certainly will prove a breather for the beleaguered Indian shuttlers.
Best quality badminton shuttle cocks are manufactured from the feathers of the left wing of a goose, treated chemically and then trimmed to identical shape and size before being planted on the cork base. But with supplies of natural feathers as well as high quality cork diminishing every day, synthetic feathers may indeed be the answer.
Obviously, quality control will remain with BWF and only approved manufacturers will be allowed to supply the synthetic feathers. 
The move makes a lot of sense, especially in these troubled times, when supply has been put on hold. Plus BWF studies show that the number of shuttle cocks used in an international tournament would be reduced by more than 25 percent with synthetic feathers compared to the natural ones in use currently.
Not only does the move make the sport of badminton more viable with one of the major cost components being heavily slashed, BWF has eased the general technical approval criteria for other equipment as well.
BWF does not see a sudden switch to synthetic feathers as manufacturers need to augment production capacity to meet the expected demand. After all players need to practice with these shuttles first before jumping into tournament play!
All said and done, badminton is certainly looking at long-term sustainability rather than short-term hurdles!

Saturday, September 12, 2020

South Africa crisis exposes ICC double standards

Cricket in South Africa is going through trying times!
Not very different from the rest of world which is gasping to recover from the global meltdown forced by the Covid19 pandemic. The world of sports is one of the worst hit since it depends solely on financial backing from industry.
The International Cricket Council, however, has chosen to look the other way as Cricket South Africa has been disbanded and put under administration by the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee. 
Lest we forget, Zimbabwe was suspended and stripped of its Test status more than half a decade ago for much less.
And Board of Control for Cricket in India stumbles from one hump to another as every action must pass muster of the Supreme Court.
But ICC never raised the issue of autonomy even though it is public knowledge that BCCI top functionaries like president Sourav Ganguly and secretary Jay Shah are awaiting ratification of the annual general meeting decision to continue in office. 
Neither was there even a murmur of protest by the ICC when BCCI was put under administration by the SC even as a retired SC judge was appointed to look at reforms in its constitution.
If that was not outside interference, there can hardly be another!
Similarly CSA has faced accusation of financial irregularities for nearly a decade and things came to a boil soon after the sacking of Haroon Lorgat following the failed launch of his ambitious T20 Global League. 
Its a directive from the South African ministry of sports and recreation to SASCOC to take over CSA affairs, not that the quasi-government body itself is free from scandal.
But ICC silence on the Indian and South African affairs is intriguing indeed. Perhaps the financial clout each board wields and its share in the ICC income decides how the world body reacts.
BCCI obviously contributes the lion's share to the ICC kitty and hence must be treated with kid gloves. The appointment of a Committee of Administrators by the learned SC till such time elections were held under the new constitution proposed by the court-appointed retired judge, it seems, in the eyes of the ICC, was no infringement on the Indian board's autonomous status!
A similar stand appears in the case of South Africa where things have simply gone downhill in the post-Lorgat era. Incidentally Lorgat, a chartered accountant by profession, was ICC chief executive from April 2008 to June 2012
CSA has seen one controversy after another leading to the summary dismissal of president Chris Nenzany and CEO officer Jacques Faul. CSA 's relations with the South African Cricketers' Association has been anything but cordial even though its business as usual for the players who continue to ply their trade in various financially lucrative leagues around the world. Nearly a dozen South Africans are poised to participate in the Indian Premier League starting September 19 in the United Arab Emirates.
ICC's task has hardly been made any easier by pressure from associate members for greater say in its affairs and also a larger slice of the financial pie!
Interesting times ahead indeed as cricket must follow the global trend of being played before empty stands and "tailor-made for television" events till such time the current pandemic blows over.

Friday, September 11, 2020

Something is seriously amiss in Indian badminton

Power struggle between a federation and its players is nothing new. But the way the Badminton Association of India is stumbling from one controversy to another, giving in to players' demands at just about every turn, does not augur too well for the future of the sport.
Badminton has been in the news for all the wrong reasons recently.
First was the controversy about Saina Nehwal's refusal to join the national camp for Olympic probables on the plea that her husband Parupalli Kashyap be included as well. Then followed the news that Indian players would be travelling to Denmark in late September to participate in the Thomas Cup for men and Uber Cup for women followed by the Denmark Open and Masters, all scheduled for October!
The Olympic training camp was hurriedly converted into the one for the October team events only to come a cropper as the players flatly refused to abide by the standard operating procedures laid down by the Sports Authority of India in conjunction with the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports, which finally foots the bill for such programmes.
SAI has issued clear guidelines which include a mandatory seven-day quarantine for all players and coaches as well as other staff prior to the commencement of any training camp. Despite pleadings by BAI, the camp scheduled to start on September 7 had to be cancelled as players were not willing to follow the SOP.
That effectively means that Indian teams would be going into the Thomas and Uber Cup events without much of an opportunity to shake off the rust from the enforced lay-off since March. However, the team competition from October 3 to 11 may help the players to get better at the individual events to follow and pick up some much needed ranking points in the race to seal places at the next year's Tokyo Olympics.
The qualifying standards of the Badminton World Federation is pretty straightforward. Countries with two or more players in the top 16 of the BWF singles rankings get two Olympic places. For doubles the same criteria applies but for top 8 in world rankings. If not only one entry per country for each of the five singles and doubles medal events are permitted for Olympics to allow to widest possible participation.
When the BWF froze the rankings on March 19, 2020, due to the Covid19 pandemic, India held only three confirmed entries for Tokyo - Sai Praneeth (rank 13) and Kidambi Srikanth (14) for men's singles and reigning world champions PV Sindhu (7) for women's singles.The men's doubles pair of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty, ranked 10 by BWF, too are all but certain to make the grade for the Olympic draw of 16 for doubles competitions in badminton. 
For the women's doubles pair of Ashwini Ponappa and Sikki N Reddy, currently number 28, and mixed doubles hopefuls Pranaav Jerry Chopra and Sikki, ranked 27, this is the time to play their hearts out and pick up ranking points to improve their chances of making the Olympic draw.
The present cut-off date for Tokyo has been set as April 29, 2021, by the BWF.
Interestingly, Saina Nehwal is ranked 20 and needs to improve at least four places to have a shot at another Olympic medal to add to her London bronze. As part of the Target Olympic Podium Scheme of the MYAS, Saina's training is funded by the government but her insistence that her husband Kashyap, ranked 24, to be added to the Olympic camp is rather strange.
The former world number one would do well to focus on her own Olympic qualification rather than push for her husband.
Not only did BAI accept Saina's demand to add Kashyap to the list of national campers but also bowed to players' demand to not follow the SOP, leading to the eventual cancellation. Kashyap has been chosen as the second singles player for Thomas Cup alongside Srikanth while Sai Praneeth recovers from an injury but the player has not been entered in the Denmark Open and Masters events that follow. 
Interestingly, while Thomas and Uber Cup do not carry any ranking points for the players, the Denmark events certainly do. Lakshya Sen is ranked 27, three places below Kashyap,but gets the BAI nod instead to play both the Denmark events, apart from Thomas Cup.
There's definitely something not so healthy cooking within the BAI even as the world badminton calendar resumes and the race hots up for Tokyo Olympic places.

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

How Djokovic must wish 2020 never happened

It was a routine start to what was looking like any normal Olympic year! Ranked number one in the world Novak Djokovic of Serbia opened 2020 with a record eighth Australian Open title just weeks after helping his country win the ATP Cup.
Regular service continued for Djokovic and the tennis world as he bagged his fifth Dubai Open in February before everything seemed to simply come undone.
Come mid-March and the globe screeched to a halt due to the worldwide Covid19 pandemic. Europe, especially the Mediterranean countries, seemed to be badly hit even as the entire world grappled with the virus that threatened to all but halt life as we knew it.
Even the Tokyo Olympics were pushed back to 2021.
But Djokovic is nothing if not a fighter. He began with a pledge of a million Euros to help his home country purchase ventilators. 
It seemed the world number one tennis player had done his bit for society and was looking to return to some kind of normalcy in life by resuming sporting activities. But soon things started falling apart.
His much-publicised Adria Tour exhibition came under heavy fire due to the rash of players and coaches testing positive for the Covid19 infection after figuring in the tournament. Djokovic himself tested positive for the virus in late June and was forced to issue an apology for his actions. 
Then came his decision to play in the final grand slam event of the year even as leading stars like Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal chose to stay home. And the way the US Open ended for Djokovic, the Serbian must be wishing he too had followed the former number ones and kept away from Flushing Meadows.
The initiative to challenge the status quo came with Djokovic as one of the prime movers of the Professional Tennis Players Association, launched in New York just prior to the US Open to help the lower ranked players on the circuit. Obviously the powers that be were looking at every move by the Serbian with a microscope until his careless crack at the ball.
The frustration at having dropped serve to Spaniard Pablo Carreno-Busta ended up in his totally unintentional slamming of the ball right into the throat of the lady line judge nearby. The fourth round ejection from the tournament will cost Djokovic all of the $ 250,000 that he would have earned as prize money for having got thus far. Plus he loses all ranking points for the event.
Neither penalty is likely to affect his number one status any time soon. But the accident in New York, like a fair amount of what has transpired with the Serb in this year so far, would certainly make him wonder if he indeed got out of the wrong side of the bed in 2020.
Had he been in one of the outside courts instead of the Arthur Ashe arena, the accident would be never have happened since line-calling there is technology based. But how can the numero uno run away from the spotlight?
There's still nearly a third of the year remaining, and none can blame Djokovic if he chooses to stay home! 
He is human after all. And there's only so much a person can handle.

Saturday, September 5, 2020

Messi staying for a year is only more bad news for Barcelona

The best football player of the present day has also proved to be an equally smart businessman. Lionel Messi agreeing to stay at Camp Nou for the remaining period of his contract only means bigger trouble for Barcelona.
With the Catalan club, in consonance with Spain's La Liga, enforcing the buy-out clause, whose deadline for 2020 ended on June 30, Messi has no option but to pay the stipulated 700 million Euros or stay put. However, an unsettled player, even of the calibre of Messi, is probably the last thing that new manager Ronald Koeman needed.
Remember the David Beckham saga at Manchester United before the midfielder moved over to Real Madrid. And, mind you, the man in charge then was none other than Sir Alex Ferguson, who was indeed emperor of all he surveyed at Old Trafford as long as he occupied the manager's chair. 
When a player has made up his mind, for whatever reason, to no longer stay at the club, it is best to let go. The moment Sir Alex realised that Beckham, his own pupil, was no longer committed to Old Trafford, he quickly cut the cords and made some money from the situation by allowing the United board to negotiate the sale.
Something similar could have been worked out by Barcelona with a bit of tact. Merely digging in the heels hardly helps since the annual salary commitment for Messi still has to be met even if the player takes the field or not!
And come June 2021, Messi walks away from Camp Nou without a farthing for Barcelona, the only club the Argentine captain has ever played for in his entire professional career.
La Liga, already reeling from the move by Cristiano Ronaldo to Italian Serie A club Juventus, ended up backing Barcelona to try and help them retain the biggest star currently on display on this firmament. But the support appears to be rather misplaced since Messi may not even turn out for Barcelona games, let alone play his heart out for the fans that have rooted for him since his teenage years.
Now the options for Barcelona are few.
Accept a much-reduced transfer fee and let Messi go where-ever he has set his heart upon. That way Barcelona do not have to keep paying Messi's well-earned monumental wages, and still make a rather fair ending of a bad deal.
Much of the blame for the current state of affairs would be laid squarely at the door of Barcelona president Josep Bartomeu, who anyway faces a tough re-election following his not so clever handling of Messi. The season-long public disagreements between club's captain and president wasn't what the fans were hoping during the rather disappointing run which saw Barcelona end without a title.
Now that Messi has reluctantly agreed to see out his present contract, Barcelona can only hope to cut its losses. 
And the club needs to make up its mind soon before the summer transfer window closes. That is the only way things could look better on the balance sheet as well