India gears up for new million-dollar badminton event

Badminton takes a leap into the unknown on Wednesday, when a new franchise-based team event with innovative rules aimed at drawing bigger crowds opens in India.

The million-dollar Indian Badminton League (IBL), trumpeted as the sport's richest event, will be played over a fortnight between six city teams, using a more attacking style of play designed to excite the fans.

But the event has suffered several blows even before the first shuttle has been hit, with Malaysian superstar Lee Chong Wei, the league's top draw and the world number one, under an injury cloud.

The standard two-point gap to win a game has been abandoned in favour of a race to 21 points for the first two games and 11 points for the decider, if needed.

There will also be a minute's commercial break after the seventh and 14th points in the first two games and after the sixth point in the decider.

"The IBL is definitely the best thing to happen to Indian badminton," Indian great Prakash Padukone said.

"Badminton has not seen this kind of money before," the former All-England champion said.

"It will add to the popularity of the sport, besides bringing in more money for the players. A lot would, however, depend on the success of the inaugural event."

The success of popular franchised-based Twenty20 cricket competitions around the world have also inspired copy-cat events in hockey, golf, football and tennis.

Badminton teams, owned by businesses and individuals, forked out thousands of dollars at an auction last month to buy players from India and around the world for the league.

Each team, comprising four foreign players, six Indians and one upcoming Indian junior, will play on a home-and-away basis in the preliminary league, with the top four qualifying for the semi-finals.

All ties, including the August 31 final in Mumbai, will have five matches -- two men's singles, and one each in women's singles, men's doubles and mixed doubles.

"Matches will become more competitive and open with these new rules," said former Indian coach Vimal Kumar. "They will help those who have an attacking game."

Former India cricket captain Sunil Gavaskar, a keen badminton enthusiast, is linked to the Mumbai franchise which will play against teams from Pune, Lucknow, Delhi, Bangalore and Hyderabad.

But the IBL lost much of its sheen when badminton's powerhouse China declined to send its players. Other stars like newly-crowned women's world champion Ratchanok Intanon of Thailand are also missing.

Malaysia's Lee remains uncertain of playing the entire fortnight after being forced to withdraw from Sunday's world championship final against Lin Dan of China.

Lin was a point away from victory at 16-21, 21-13, 20-17 when Lee conceded the match due to severe leg cramps and had to be stretchered off the court in China's Guangzhou.

The IBL received a boost thanks to the success of Indian players in Guangzhou where teenager P.V. Sindhu won a bronze medal and Saina Nehwal and Parupalli Kashyap made it to the quarter-finals.

Nehwal, the women's world number three, was bought by her home team of Hyderabad for $120,000, second only to the $135,000 paid for Lee by Gavaskar's Mumbai franchise.

Sindhu, a Hyderabadi like Nehwal, will play for Lucknow for $80,000, while Kashyap was picked up by Bangalore for $75,000.

"I am not surprised the focus is on Sindhu and Saina," said former national women's champion Ami Ghia Shah. "They deserve all the money and attention they can get."