As Kidambi Srikanth’s cross-court smash hit the deck beyond the reach of Asian Games champion Jonatan Christie, the Indian camp, its fans within the Impact Arena in Bangkok and in the wider world, let out a collective yell of celebration. The men’s badminton team had scripted one of the biggest moments in Indian sporting history, crowned the Thomas Cup champions by beating the game’s powerhouse and defending champions Indonesia 3-0 in the final.
Once a distant sporting dream, India saw the Thomas Cup swim into closer view through the week before producing a sensational performance for the title. The Thomas Cup was as exclusive a sporting club as there can be — in 31 editions of the competition, only five countries had laid their hands on the trophy before India joined them on Sunday.
With the victory, Indian men’s badminton became a rare group across disciplines to win a global team event. The country had been crowned Olympic or world champions only in cricket, hockey and chess previously.
“As far as team sport goes, this is it. And as far as the world of sport also goes in India, this is it,” chief national coach Pullela Gopichand gushed from Hyderabad. “For me this is as big as it gets. This is not only for Indian badminton, but Indian sport.”
In Indian badminton, the Thomas Cup conquest will rank alongside, if not above, the All England triumphs of Prakash Padukone in 1981 and Gopichand 20 years later, and PV Sindhu’s world championships crown in 2019.
“As for me, this is the greatest ever victory for Indian badminton. Of course, Prakash and Gopi’s victories at All England, Sindhu becoming world champion are all big achievements, but when it comes to team events, this is the biggest thing,” selector and former chief coach U Vimal Kumar, traveling as the team manager, said from Bangkok.
The Olympics, world championships, Thomas team events, Uber and Sudirman Cup, are the highest tier events in badminton.
India’s achievement is doubly special because they subdued favorites Indonesia with two matches to spare. They were an epitome of consistency and fighting spirit through the week, having beaten heavyweights and former champions Malaysia and Denmark (both 3-2) in the quarters and semis.
In 14-time champions Indonesia, India were up against the most successful team in the 73-year-old tournament. But Indian shuttlers rose to the occasion. Young world No. 9 Lakshya Sen, world No. 8 doubles pair Chirag Shetty and Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and then former world No. 1 Srikanth punched above their weight to beat their top-ranked opponents.
Previously, India’s best performance at the biennial event was reaching the last-four stage in 1979 but medals were not awarded then for the losing semi-finalists. Thus it is also India’s first medal in the event.
“The Indian badminton team has scripted history! The entire nation is elated by India winning the Thomas Cup! Congratulations to our accomplished team and best wishes to them for their future endeavours. This win will motivate so many upcoming sportspersons,” tweeted Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who had a telephonic conversation with the squad after the victory.
The Union sports ministry announced a cash award of ₹1 crore for the victors. The Badminton Association of India (BAI) also announced ₹1 crore for the players and ₹20 lakhs for the support staff.
The team went out for a celebratory late-night dinner in Bangkok. “We are going to dance late into the night when we get back to our hotel,” said Shetty before leaving for dinner.