IBL Season 1 : How did the icon players fare?

Author : Navin Madhavan

The much touted,  first of a kind badminton league – the IBL – was wrapped up a few days back. While it might or might not have been as big a monetary success as the IPL, it definitely made the nation (if not the world) stand up and watch the sport for once. This was probably the first time that the sport was being actively followed and watched by enthusiasts, due to the limited coverage it gets on live television otherwise.

The format borrowed heavily from the IPL and had earmarked some of the country’s best talent and the World no.1 as icon players who would double up as the team captains. Now that the league has been concluded, its time to take a look back and figure out if the icon players did make a difference.

Hyderabad Hotshots : Saina Nehwal

Record : Played : 7, Won : 7 , Lost : 0

Saina Nehwal kisses the IBL trophy after her Hyderabad Hotshots team won the inaugural IBL (Getty Images)

The icon player that made all the difference between the eventual winners and the rest. Throughout the tournament, Saina was at her best as she once again exhibited all her skills to take her team through to the title. She was also a vociferous supporter by the courtside when she wasn’t playing, as she cheered her team-mates on as they fought their way to the title.

Coming off a bronze medal in the World Championship, the event was seen as a test of whether P.V. Sindhu could knock Saina off her undisputed position as the Queen of Indian badminton. Saina showed all her experience to come out as the winner on both occasions and the singles tie in the final turned out to be a mere formality. Saina played out two excellent matches against the higher ranked Juliane Schenk and arguably the best match of the tournament against Tai Tzu-Ying in the last league match. Though it wasn’t eventually required, it remains a commendable point that she put her hand up to play the crunch mixed doubles tie in both the semis and the final.

For most Indians, this was the first time they were getting to see what Saina really stood for and she put up a true champion’s performance for all of them to see in this league. Every match exhibited her ability to control the game, never say die attitude and her hunger for victory. A truly outstanding performance and easily the Player and Icon of the Tournament for me.

Awadhe Warriors : P.V. Sindhu

Record : Played : 7, Won : 4, Lost : 3

P.V. Sindhu did played well and led her team to the final. Though she lost both matches to Saina, she did beat some key international stars (Getty Images)

The stage was set for Sindhu; the IBL was a league which was seen as a stepping stone for promising youngsters to showcase their talent to the world. This was her chance to announce herself to the world and prove that the bronze medal was no fluke. I think it would be fair to say that she passed the test with flying colours.

Despite all the hype for her clashes with Saina and the subsequent defeats that came with it, Sindhu should know that its definitely not shameful to lose to the World No.4. Losses to Saina aside, Sindhu had a good tournament as she held her nerve to defeat Juliane Schenk in an extremely close encounter and Tine Baun easily in the semi-finals.

Sindhu proved that she has the mettle to pull off wins against the best of players on the international circuit in the IBL. The defeats to Saina proved that she still has a lot left to learn and needs to develop the ability to dictate the game better, something which Saina has in abundance. Sindhu was an intergral part of a team which wasn’t expected to come out on top in the IBL initially, but grew in strength through the tournament. Despite being the youngest of the icon players, it would be fair to say that she easily out-performed some of her senior compatriots through her contribution to the team.

Mumbai Masters : Lee Chong Wei

Record : Played : 5, Won : 5, Lost : 0

Lee Chog Wei put in a performance that endorsed his status as World NO.1 (Getty Images)

A 5-0 record through the IBL; nothing less was expected from the World No.1 as he delivered what his team owners had bought him for. An injury scare for the first two matches resulted in the owners and organizers sweating it out on whether the big name would make it for the league at all.

He made his first appearance in Mumbai and I was lucky enough to watch the champion play live as he made short work of Daren Liew in the singles. He teamed up with Tine Baun for the mixed doubles , in what turned out to be the only time he played mixed doubles in the tournament after he seemed to realise that it was not really up his alley. In the rest of the matches, Lee Chong Wei managed to give a boost to some of the young stars of Indian badminton, as he dropped a game each to both Ajay Jayaram and K. Srikanth. But eventually, the champion did win all matches without too much of an effort.

His shining performances aside, I believe that the IBL has to be thanked for bringing the World No.1 to Indian badminton courts, giving the spectators a chance to witness an extraordinary talent and the Indian youngsters a chance that they might have never got otherwise to play against him. As for victories and records, Chong Wei should hope that his teammates and owners give him better support to help himself to one more title in the form of an IBL winner next year.

Banga Beats : P Kashyap

Record : Played  : 5, Won : 2 , Lost : 3

Kashyap was amongst the most disappointing of the group (Getty Images)

Outside of Jwala Gutta (who featured only in 2 matches), I would rank Kashyap as the icon player who had the most disappointing of the lot in the IBL. Coming off a quarterfinal appearance in the World Championship, a lot was expected from Kashyap in this league.

While most of the other icon players did stand out as leaders and won crunch matches, Kashyap failed to do so with losses against both the overseas players in his two encounters. It definitely didn’t seem like he was instilling a lot of confidence in the team with his performances. For instance, in the match against Hyderabad a win against Tanongsak in the first match might have given the team an immense confidence boost, who were in search of a 5-0 win. But, the loss effectively ruled out any chances of a semi-final and made the rest of the tie a dead rubber. The loss to Saurabh Verma too would definitely have been a dampener.

Overall, Kashyap’s ability to close off games comes into question, as we have seen him falter from winning positions at various big matches at the international stage. What we can hope for is that this was just fatigue from a tough tournament (World Championships) that preceded the IBL and not a persistent stamina issue as such. Hopefully he will come back with a bang next season and lead from the front for Banga Beats in 2014.

Krrissh Delhi Smashers : Jwala Gutta

Record : Played : 2, Won : 1, Lost : 1

Jwala Gutta did more cheer-leading than playing at the IBL (Getty Images)

For all the controversy around the auctions and reduction in the base price, Jwala Gutta ended up having a very sober and meek IBL I should say. A shoulder injury prevented her from participating for a majority of the IBL and she ended up with a 50-50 record in the two matches she did play.

In the opening match of the IBL, she faced off with her ex-partner Ashwini Ponnappa in what turned out to be a thrilling match and the decider of the tie. After the loss in this  game, she was ruled out for the remaining matches. Her next appearance came in what was the last match for the Delhi Smashers, as she combined with her ex-teammate V. Diju to win a closely fought tie against the international pair of Carsten Mogensen and Carolina Marin.

This IBL, Jwala will be remembered more for her cheer-leading skills, as she was seen on the sidelines spurring her team-mates on, despite being injured for most of the tournament. Jwala should hope that the next season has a women’s doubles match in the format to exhibit her skills better and to make a greater impact on the results of her team.

Pune Pistons : Ashwini Ponnappa

Record : Played : 5, Won : 4, Lost : 1

Ashwini Ponnappa struck up a feared combination with Jochim Fischer in the mixed doubles (Getty Images)

Ponnappa was easily the Indian diva, and she proved that she was not just the diva in this league. Teaming up with Joachim Fischer, she formed a formidable mixed doubles team that proved to be tough to beat through the tournament. She played the perfect foil for Fischer’s attacking game and almost made the mixed doubles match an easy victory for the Pune Pistons team.

Ponnappa and Fischer delivered key victories for the team in two must-win matches against Delhi and Mumbai to clinch the tie in the league stages. Their play was indeed something special and her ex-partner Jwala Gutta, commented on how Pune would be contenders, just because it would be tough for others to clinch the deciding mixed doubles tie. It was unfortunate that the team couldn’t stretch Hyderabad to the last match in the semi’s, as we might have seen this pair give a tough fight to the  make-shift combination of Saina and Shem Goh.

In complete contrast to her ex-partner Jwala, Ponnappa was a figure of calm and composure in the dug-out during the matches. Like Jwala, Ponnappa too would be hoping that women’s doubles makes the cut next year as she looks to prove that it was not all Fischer that got them the wins in the IBL. Despite the controversy around the reduction in base prices and the low price at the auctions, Ponnappa showed that she will turn out to be a valuable asset for the Pune team.