BAI's junior selection process shrouded in controversy

Pullela Gopichand has voiced his displeasure with the BWF's new format, saying he doesn't "agree with the idea of getting the players to play so many tournaments" Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Vaishnavi Reddy, 15, is the world junior No. 10 in the Under-19 category and winner of last week's Belgian Junior Open. Yet she will not compete at the World Junior Championship starting in Jakarta from October 9. The girls' singles squad though has un-ranked U-19 player Gayatri Gopichand, the 14-year-old daughter of chief national coach Pullela Gopichand.

Courting controversy after Vaishnavi's family levelled allegations of favoritism and the player pulled out of the event after being named in doubles, the selection process for the Indian girls' team at the World Junior Championship has been called into question.

BAI president Himanta Biswa Sarma, while denying that any player was favoured, said that the primary yardstick for picking players for junior international tournaments was participation on the domestic circuit.

Vaishnavi, BAI officials say, falls terribly short on that front, not having turned out in a tournament in India in over a year. "Eighteen months," clarifies junior chief coach Sanjay Mishra. "How can we pick her without having seen her play at all in the country? She's no doubt a very talented player but in this case the selection committee didn't have much of a choice. There is no question of bias. Even so, we didn't want to leave her out completely keeping her ranking in mind and offered her a spot in the doubles. But she chose not to take it."

Participation in international tournaments through the year can be an expensive proposition for regular junior players, who are dependent on funding from their families. According to Mishra, there is a reason why only international ranking points are not considered for selection: "Only international rankings can never be a true measure of a junior player because if you travel to enough number of tournaments, gathering points and making a climb is not that difficult."

For most juniors, with no sponsor to back them and BAI too limiting its funding to major events like World or Asian meets, the burden falls on the family of the players, most of whom can't afford to send their children on the international circuit. Vaishnavi's family, though, is able to independently support and sustain her professional career.

"Today we have received one letter of complaint, but if we are to go by international rankings for selection we will be flooded with dozens of letters from aggrieved parents," says Sarma.

There are a total of eight criteria listed for the selection of junior and sub-junior badminton teams, and there is little to indicate that a single criterion overrides others. The first criterion mentioned is ranking -- both domestic and international -- followed by current performance in domestic and international circuits, head-to-head results during the past six months, physical fitness, performance consistency over the past six months, attendance in the national coaching camp, and participation in national championships.

Again, the criterion of ranking does not specify what could be considered a good enough ranking for selection, whether a top-10 spot in the world works just fine or whether one has to fall within the first five to be picked. In this case, the element of subjectivity in the criterion has worked to BAI's favour.

BAI, though, has denied Gopi being present at the junior selection committee meetings due to the fact that he was a parent of a player in contention.

Vaishnavi and Gayatri compete in different age categories -- under-19 and under-17 respectively -- and have formerly been doubles partners, which lends more history to this feud.

In her letter to the Prime Minister, BAI and Sports Minister, Vaishnavi's grandmother, Jakka Sowjanya Reddy, who usually accompanies her to tournaments, alleged that Gopichand's 'U-19 un-ranked' daughter was favoured over a top junior player and that she was discriminated against by SAI coaches during a tournament in Jakarta since she didn't belong to the Gopichand academy. Vaishnavi's family has also threatened to move court to seek redressal.

Their battle will be far from easy given that Gopichand is easily the most important and influential figure in Indian badminton today with a proven recent track record.

A crucial factor, says BAI secretary Anup Narang, which could not be overlooked during selection was Gayatri beating top-ranked junior girls and World No. 9 Aakrshi Kashyap, 16, twice in the space of 10 days recently. "If a girl who is not even 15 years of age defeats our best Under-19 player back-to-back in two selection tournaments we have to give her a chance. We had sought participation of players for the three selection tournaments. Vaishnavi didn't show up but we still considered her for selection."

Adding another dimension to the controversy is Sarma's claim that Gopichand had written to him prior to the selection meeting, requesting not to consider Gayatri, who has an U-17 Asian podium, for selection.

The controversy will not only increase the focus on Gayatri's performance at the World Juniors, but questions surrounding her selection will also likely continue to be raised, unless she gets yards ahead of her competitors.