As the Premier Badminton League (PBL) caravan trundles off to Lucknow, it is the sixth and final team in the league, Delhi Acers, that will be making its debut against the Saina Nehwal led hosts, Awadhe Warriors. And the sparks are bound to fly between two evenly balanced teams, but for the presence of the Indian icon.
Saina's absence in Awadhe's opening match against Mumbai Rockets made all the difference between victory and defeat in the narrow 1-2 reverse. An inflamed Achilles tendon, which has not quite settled, was given as the reason for Saina's last-minute withdrawal from the opening tie at the NSCI. Had she played, there is little doubt that the world No.2 would have taken Mumbai's Ruthvika Shivani in her stride.
If Saina plays in Lucknow, neither P C Thulasi nor 17 year old Shikha Gautam should give her any trouble. The doughty, defensive Thulasi, who played the third singles for India in last year's Uber Cup series, used to practice regularly with Saina at the Gopichand Academy before the latter moved to Bengaluru to train under Vimal Kumar. They know each other's game well, but Saina has always been way superior.
If, however, Saina sits this match out as well, her understudy in the Awadhe squad, Gummidi Vrushali, will find her hands full with Thulasi.
Really, only Saina can decide when she will step into the arena in a PBL encounter. If she has set her sights on bettering her 2012 London Olympics bronze effort at the quadrennial Games later this year, she will ensure that the injury heals fully before she crosses swords with any of the players who are likely to bar her way at Rio.
Delhi's strength lies in their two men's singles matches. Last year's World Championships bronze medallist Tommy Sugiarto of Indonesia, England's Rajiv Ouseph and India's Ajay Jayaram provide plenty of alternatives for being pitted against current Indian national champion Sai Praneeth, former national champion Saurabh Varma or Thai battler Tanongsak Saensomboonsuk .
The left-handed Tanongsak, who was ranked in the world's top ten just two years ago, matched H S Prannoy stroke for stroke in their clash in Mumbai on Saturday, and came back from huge deficits in all three games, to pip the Indian at the tape. If he is pitted against Sugiarto, the match should attain dizzy heights.
Delhi also has a strong men's doubles combination – the Malaysian pair of Koo Keat Kien and Tan Boon Heong, who have been playing together for several years. They should have the measure of China's Cai Yun and Indonesia's Hendra Gunawan, who disappointed in their opening outing in Mumbai against Mathias Boe and Vladimir Ivanov.
But Awadhe will have the upper hand in the mixed doubles, with Bodin Issara and ChristinnaPedersen taking on Akshay Dewalkar and England's Gabrielle Adcock. Gabrielle's husband, the left-handed Chris Adcock, covers the court beautifully whenever they play in the paired event, but he has been picked up by Chennai Smashers in the auction, and Dewalkar may not find it easy to gell with her.
There is little to choose between the two teams, but in Saina's expected continued absence, Delhi would appear to have a slight edge.
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