Asian Games: China winners again as India's historic badminton silver a story of what ifs

India men's team pose with their silver medal for the men's team badminton event at the 2022 Asian Games. Adek Berry/AFP

What if HS Prannoy had been fit to play?

What if Kidambi Srikanth had won one of the game points in his first game?

What if Dhruv Kapila was playing with his regular partner Arjun MR, who was out injured?

What ifs are a useless pursuit, but the Indian men's badminton team will certainly rue them tonight. Because on the other side of these what ifs, within touching distance was a historic gold medal. Beating China in badminton. Beating China in China.

The defending champions have 43 badminton gold medals - the most in Asian Games history. And India were one match away from winning their first-ever badminton gold.

But it was not to be as the hosts fought back from 0-2 down to win the best of five men's team final 3-2.

Lakshya Sen and Satwiksairaj Rankireddy-Chirag Shetty's stunning wins were not enough as Srikanth went down in the third rubber to trigger a collapse.

How China snatched victory from the jaws of defeat

Playing a full-strength China at home in badminton was always going to be a big challenge. But it was one India was ready for -- they are the reigning men's world champions after all.

India No 1 Prannoy was sitting out due to a back injury, but even without the world No 7 India had enough quality to win. Against Lakshya Sen, who strode in first, was Shi Yuqi - world No 6, former All England champion, the man who was seen as the next Lin Dan.

World No 14 Lakshya had never played him before, but as he has shown so often, reputations matter little to the 22-year-old. He played a breath-taking match, coming back from 9-14 down in decider to win 22-20, 14-21, 21-19.

The first blow was struck and up next were the reigning Asian champions in Satwik and Chirag. The Indian world No 3 vs Chinese world No 2, Liang Wei Keng and Wang Chang. Head-to-head - trailing 1-2.

But Sat-Chi did Sat-Chi things - pumped up by the first win, they almost dominated the match 21-15, 21-18. It wasn't a hard-fought win, but Chirag was celebrating with his T-shirt off and their trademark dance - a message considering the venue.

Then came Kidambi Srikanth - the former world No 1, the 2021 World Championship finalist, 2022 Thomas Cup champion, the most experienced Indian in men's singles. Up against him was world No 8 Li Shi Feng, the 23-year-old All England champion.

This was the match. If India had to win the gold medal, it had to be done 3-0. The next two matches would have the inexperienced, second rung Indian players.

Srikanth knew his task and started it well. But it was a nervy match, much more restrained that the first two: 8-8, 9-9, 10-10. But slowly, Srikanth came into himself; a 11-10 lead in interval, small fist pumps, aggressive play, positive body language. He took a 18-14 lead. Li pulled back for 19-19 but the Indian won two game points with terrific points - change of pace, digging in, smart play.

And then the nerves struck, he squandered two game points and Li converted his first in extra time.

That was the cog that derailed the whole carriage. The next game, he started well but slumped from 7-11 to 7-17 and soon gave up 12 match points. It was an old Srikanth pattern and it reared its head at the worst possible time.

Up next were the scratch doubles pair of Dhruv Kapila and Sai Pratheek (replacing Dhruv's regular partner Arjun) The world No 8 doubles pair of Liu Yu Chen and Ou Xuan Yi brushed them aside 21-6, 21-15.

The decider came on national champion Mithun Manjunath, taking on world No 20 Wang Hongyang - player ranked 33 places above it. It was a baptism by fire as he went down 21-12, 21-4... The final game was the most one-sided if the entire contest.

China had defended their gold and India were left to rue the What Ifs... But they don't have too much time to do that: the individual events begin tomorrow. There is still a chance for India to end its gold medal drought at the Asian Games.

Incidentally, it is Srikanth who will play in the individual event, after he beat the higher ranked Lakshya at the trials. If he and the rest can use this defeat as fire to their fuel, the badminton events could get very interesting.