Onmanorama Special | Badminton set to get an airlift with new outdoor avatar

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Photo: Onmanorama/BWF
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Bengaluru: The feather game is falling in love with one of the five elements of nature – air! In other words, shuttle is flying out officially. From the comfort zones of indoor stadiums, may be to a park next to your home. To the beaches, to open grounds, fields, streets, under Metro lines and may be to your car park. Mind you, this is AirBadminton.

That was the breaking news from the hangars of Badminton World Federation (BWF) last week, triggering a wide range of debate among the ‘feather fellows’ across the globe. This includes the players, coaches, administrators, fans and everyone who had a knock at the game that has its origins in Pune.

Interestingly, the new format is not just all about playing badminton outdoors as most of us have done some time in our lives. It is also about playing it the new way. After singles and doubles, you could now add another player for triples. Giving you company at the backyard court will be the new avatar of the flying cock named AirShuttle.

Onmanorama takes a close look at badminton’s new version and also captures the thoughts of some of the Indian shuttlers, including the greats, who have tamed the game without the intervention of ‘air force.’

New Game

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Photo: Onmanorama/BWF

The BWF new regulations say AirBadminton is a development project aimed at creating opportunities for people of all ages and on multiple surfaces.

BWF says there are 300 million active badminton players globally, propelling speed, endurance, strength and agility. If numbers matter, one hour of badminton burns more than 450 calories.

The new version aims to find an effective, economic and sustainable way of encouraging more people to play more badminton in more places.

The BWF idea is to make it easier for everyone to access the sport through a new outdoor format and new shuttlecock.

AirBadminton will be played on hard, grass and sand surfaces. A competitive version of this could be on sand, aimed at increasing its global appeal.

New shuttle

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Photo: Onmanorama/BWF

The racket remains the same, but BWF says a lot of thought process and research have gone into the making of the AirShuttle, promising steady flight, longevity and spin response among others.

BWF says sample tests were done for different target groups so that playing the new format has all the positive experience and feel of outdoor badminton.

“The development of the AirShuttle has been a five-year project (from 2014) in collaboration with the Institute for Sports Research (ISR) at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore,” says a BWF statement.

The following factors were kept in the mind while developing the new shuttlecock. It must have similar trajectory, acoustics and play feel to that of a traditional indoor shuttle. Similar flight properties with limited influence from humidity variations.

Minimal impact from side and axial wind. The shuttlecocks must be durable and cost-effective.

BWF says over 30 prototypes were subjected to rigorous testing by players from beginner level through to Olympic-level athletes. The feedback enabled further design changes.

“We are currently working with production companies to confirm the manufacturing process and continue the development of the AirShuttle and further improve the stability, durability and performance,” says BWF.

Let’s wait and see: Vimal Kumar

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Former Olympian and chief coach of India Vimal Kumar (L) and Prakash Padukone (C).

Former Olympian and Chief Coach of India, Vimal Kumar, takes us way back into the ’60s-90s, when outdoor badminton (ball and shuttle) was very popular in South India, especially in Kerala.

“Let’s go back to the ’60s. We all played outdoor badminton and came up. I have played many outdoor tournaments in interior Kerala. The courts were levelled using cow-dung, then they were lit and the matches went on late into the night,” recalls Vimal.

He says what BWF doing is nothing new and feels India is 50 years ahead of the new format being implemented.

“If they really want to see how badminton is played outdoors, then they should go to Kerala and interior areas of Tamil Nadu. The prize money for some tournaments matched national standards. As the indoor format gained prominence, I remember many state associations did ban players from playing outdoors,” recalls Vimal, now part of the Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy.

On the new outdoor format, Vimal feels badminton will become really a great sport, with players having more options now.

“We can introduce badminton to many parts of India. It’s okay for popularizing the game. But real badminton will stay indoors, owing to wind and other factors. It will be like beach volleyball and volleyball,” says Vimal, now settled in Bengaluru.

He says he would want to adopt a wait and watch approach, for now. “You can play outdoors only when the air is still. We also need to groom a generation to play with the new shuttle. I am not sure if with the new shuttle we can get the right strokes, exact placement and other features of a feather shuttle. Let’s wait and see how things unfold,” says Vimal.

New dimension to the game: Gopi

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Indian badminton chief coach Pullela Gopichand (L) and Olympic silver medallist PV Sindhu (2nd R). Photo: Onmanorama/BWF

Chief national coach of Indian badminton team Pullela Gopichand told Onmanorama that he’s excited about the possibilities AirBadminton rings in. However, he says it’s too early to make any prediction about the impact of the format.

“As a 10-year-old-boy, my first tournament was ball badminton played at our village. We all have played outdoor badminton in some form or the other. The outdoor format announced by BWF brings in a new dimension to the game. It definitely opens up great possibilities to spread the essence of badminton,” says Gopichand, winner of the All-England Open Badminton Championship in 2001.

Gopi says the idea of over 10,000 people watching a badminton game is exciting, though organizing such events will not be an easy task.

“The beauty of badminton has been the way the shuttle performed indoors as per more or less the wishes of the player. The flight, accuracy, speed and other aspects made the game beautiful. We will have to see what the story will be when it is played outside using a new type of shuttle,” says Gopi, who heads the Pullela Gopichand Badminton Academy.

The former international player says he is happy that the new format will help build more facilities and also give opportunities to a new set of players to emerge.

“As I see it, AirBadminton will have to be a new game by itself. I am excited,” says Gopi, under whose tutelage Saina, Sindhu, Srikant and a host of other players have emerged to shine at the international level.

Villages to benefit: Neeraj Mishra

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Former national player Neeraj Mishra (L) and Malaysian shuttler Lee Chong Wei.

Former national player and mentor of Awadhe Warriors (a Premier Badminton League team representing Lucknow) Neeraj Mishra is of the opinion that AirBadminton will make the game popular.

“I am excited with this new idea. Anything that brings in change and excitement in sports needs to be welcomed. I am sure that the new game will become more popular and will increase its reach to small towns and villages,” says Neeraj.

He says with long-endurance shuttlecocks set to hit the market, badminton will become a less expensive sport.

“No doubt, shuttle is an expensive game. Let’s see the performance of AirShuttle which is said to be having longer life,” he says.

According to Neeraj, a new category of players will emerge out of AirBadminton.

He says it is very unlikely that the current set of indoor players will shift to outdoors considering the difference in technique.

Power play will thrive: George Thomas

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Former national champion George Thomas. Photo: Onmanorama/BWF

Former national champion George Thomas feels that AirBadminton will take the popularity of the game to new levels.

“I can cite the case of Kerala where outdoor game is so popular. One can expect mass participation in Kerala with so many courts already existing. Here the players are already used to plastic shuttles,” says George.

He feels that owing to the varying flight factor of indoor and outdoor shuttlecocks, there will be difference in the approach to the game from the players’ point of view.

“I feel learning from outdoor will not be good for indoor players mainly because wrong footwork and wrong actions could eventually develop. Both indoor badminton and outdoor will require different styles and it will be difficult to master both,” says Geroge.

He feels the power game will thrive during outdoors, with very little scope for accuracy owing to the wind factor.

“But AirBadminton will be definitely played by a wide section of people across all ages. It will once again become a great family sport being played outdoors with a better shuttle,” adds George.

More players will emerge: Nikil Naketkar

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Former Indian shuttler and Olympian Nikhil Kanetkar. Photo: Onmaonrama/BWF

Nikhil Kanetkar, Olympian and director at Nikhil Kanetkar Badminton Academy, Pune, is unsure as to how AirBadminton will pan out as a popular sport.

“As I see it now, it will help in increasing the number of people playing badminton, which is certainly a good sign. But, I don’t think it can be a substitute to the indoor game. AirBadminton can at most become a supplementary sport to the existing game,” says Nikhil.

Will create rural impact: Jaseel

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Former international player Jaseel P Ismail. Photo: Onmanorama/BWF

Jaseel P Ismail, former international player hailing from Kozhikode, says he is excited about the news of BWF’s latest initiative.

“I have seen many talented guys playing the sport outdoors and they were not able to make it big as proper training was never imparted to them. Indoor badminton is quite an expensive sport and this limited the game to urban areas. Now I feel it would make impact in rural areas too,” says Jaseel, one of the most stylish and popular doubles players of India.

Jaseel feels that AirBadminton will gift new and innovative techniques to the game.

Birth of a new badminton game: Uttsav

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Former international player and coach Uttsav Mishra (L) and Danish shuttler Mattias Christensen. Photo: Onmanorama/BWF

Former international player and coach of the senior Indian badminton team Uttsav Mishra says, “As a player and a coach I had always wondered why we don't have this concept of outdoor badminton, as I grew up playing on the street in front of my house. I knew that someday, the walls of indoor badminton will fall, making it accessible to more audiences,” says Uttsav.

Finally, AirBadminton promises a whiff of freshness and equal opportunities to feathered fellows. With less of rocket science behind the shuttle and occasional ‘air strikes,’ badminton will be different. And, the scent of sand and the grass is sure to awaken the badminton addicts on this planet.

(The writer is an independent aerospace and defence journalist, who blogs at Tarmak007 and tweets @writetake. Occasionally, he also writes on sports.)

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