If India aspires to be a great sports nation, the north-eastern part of the country has to be the engine of the growth story
The year was 2011. In the sixth month to the beginning of the new decade, a young man from Ranchi lofted the ball to the stands of the Wankhede Stadium, Mumbai, leading his team to the second World Cup trophy in cricket. More than the victory in the tournament, the shot was symbolic of the aspirations of those coming from the humble origin and small centres to lead from the front, stand tall and to be counted in the sporting journey of our great nation. As the last year of the decade approaches near, Mahendra Singh Dhoni may have faded into the sunset with unfortunate run out in the semi-final match against New Zealand in the World Cup 2019. But the cricketing shot, which was symbolic of the rising aspirations of the girls and boys from the hitherto non-privileged centres, families, backgrounds and economic status has become an abiding narrative in the Indian sports now. The developments in the Indian sporting landscape in the year 2019 took this a step forward. This is the welcome sign, for the hunger and the passion of these aspirational segments have got the potential of catapulting India to a strong sporting nation.
Indian sports represented by cricket as the main course carried an image worldwide for decades. Do you know why India is the land of batsman? The reasons are obvious. We used to often hear this in the press boxes while covering matches overseas. Batting is symptomatic of the privileged class whereas bowling and fielding are meant for the lesser privileged ones. Brilliance in batting helps you to get recognised outshining the spirit and sacrifice for the team required to excel in bowling and fielding. After batsman, the spinners with their guile and temperament cover-up for the bowlers in Indian cricket. The year 2019 has changed this perception forever. Spearheaded by another commoner rising from the humble roots, Jasprit Bumrah, Indian pace battery comprising of Mohammad Shami, Ishant Sharma, Umesh Yadav and Bhuvneswar Kumar is now feared and respected by the batsman from all across the globe. In Antigua on August 25 (8 Overs, 5 Runs, and 7 Wickets) and in Jamaica on August 31, 2019 (12 Overs, 27 Runs, 6 Wickets), Jasprit Bumrah produced one of the most dominating performances by an Indian on the tour of West Indies. It was fitting that the greatest show by Indian pacer took place in the West Indies, the spiritual home of pace bowling. Returning from West Indies, in the two back to back home series against South Africa and Bangladesh, India literally blew them apart on the strength of the pace bowling and not the spinners as was the trend for years. India may not have won the World Cup 2019, but India is the pole position by miles in the ongoing test championships because of its strong bowling attack backed by one of the best fielding sides in the world.
In badminton, an Indian pair is developing the same reputation, which Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupati once commanded in world tennis. The men’s double pair of Chirag Shetty and Satwiksairaj Rankireddy beat five of the top 10 ranked pairs in the world in 2019. Rankireddy, who hails from a small town Amalapuram in the state of Andhra Pradesh, combined with Chirag to go on a giant-killing spree in 2019. They claimed their first Super 500 title at Thailand Open and then reached the final of the French Open—a super 750 event. In Paris, they defeated World No 2 pair Mohammad Ahsan and Hendra Setiawan to become first doubles pair from the country to reach a super 750 final. Whereas the dynamic duo has got their eyes set on conquering the crown in one of the most competitive global sports, a daughter of the country became the World Champion in the sports. Bronze in 2013 and 2014. Silver in 2017 and 2018. PV Sindhu finally got the gold in Badminton World Championship in 2019. Saina Nehwal and Prakash Padukone, two legends of the game before Sindhu, had medals in the championships before, but PV Sindhu getting gold has happened for the first time in the Indian badminton history. If PV Sindhu gets the gold in 2020 Tokyo Olympics, according to many of the greats, she will go down as all-time one of the greatest if not the greatest Indian sportsperson ever.
Wrestling has got deep ancient and historical roots in the country. In the sports representative of rural India in modern times, we always look for our heroes. As Sushil Kumar, India’s most successful wrestler in the Olympics is on the verge of leaving the stage, Bajrang Punia became the World Number one in his category in 2019. In the Women’s category, Vinesh Phogat won a world’s medal. Bajrang and Vinesh will be the Indian wrestlers to watch out for in 2020 Tokyo Olympics, but the one who has got the potential of leading the future of Indian wrestling is Deepak Punia. In August 2019, Deepak became the first Indian to win a junior world in 18 years. A month after in September 2019, he reached the final of the Senior Worlds. Perhaps, destiny wanted to save his best for the latter date. Deepak opted out of the final owing to an injury. United World Wrestling named Deepak Punia, the best junior wrestler in the world, the first Indian wrestler to get such honour.
The passing of the baton took place in table tennis as well. Gnanasekaran Sathiyan, an engineering graduate from Chennai, in 2019, took over the mantle from veteran Sharath Kamal. Sathiyan became the first Indian to break into the top 25 in table tennis world rankings, something which even Sharath Kamal has not done. He defeated several top players of the world including Harimoto Tomokazu of Japan. He became the first Indian to qualify for the last 16 of the world cup where he lost to the legend Timo Boll.
Starting from the Athens Olympics, except the blip in Rio 2016, Indian shooters have won maximum medals for the country in recent years. The intent for the Tokyo Olympics 2020 is clear, with the Indians already grabbing 15 shooting quotas for the games. Amidst this backdrop, the shooters who have come up as the standout performer in the year 2019 are Elavenil Valarivan, Manu Bhaker, Saurabh Chaudhary and Divyansh Panwar. 18-year-old Elavenil won her maiden seniors gold in 10 M Women’s rifle at ISSF World Cup in Rio in August 2019, following up on the junior world cup gold, earlier in the year.
If India aspires to be a great sports nation, the northeastern part of the country has to be the engine of the growth story. There is another legend in the making from the north-east. Mirabai Chanu, one of the country’s most successful athletes made a mark in 2019. In Rio 2016, she failed to complete her lift. In 2017, she lifted her personal best of 194 kilograms, marking her comeback. She got injured then and had to go through a long period of recovery. In 2019, returning from a long lay off in the Asian Weightlifting Championship in China, she improved her personal best to 199 kilograms. In the World Championships in September 2019, Mirabai finally crossed the 200 mark. If she achieves the podium finish in Olympics 2020, she will go down in the history of the Indian sport as another legend to look up to coming from the northeastern part of the country.
The dream of every Indian to see their team excelling in the most popular global sports has still to cover a long distance to become a reality. But a football match played in 2019 gave this dream one more gentle push. In the FIFA World Cup qualifier versus Qatar, the Indian football team had to fight against all possible odds. Raucous Doha crowd, talismanic Suneil Chetri down with fever and the odds tilted heavily in favour of the Asian Champion. The Indian Blue Tigers held out for ninety minutes with Gurdeep Singh Sandhu and Sandesh Jhingan playing the game of their lives. India finished the game as the only side not losing to Qatar in the year 2019. If Sahal Abdul Samad’s volley from Anirudh Thapa corner in the second half would have been inches lower, India would have been the only side to beat Qatar in 2019. We do understand that there is hardly any place for ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ in sports. Ask the true meaning of ‘IF’ from Ravindra Jadeja, whose inning of his life failed to carry the day for India in the World Cup semi-finals against New Zealand. One may also ask the significance of ‘BUT’ from Rohit Sharma, who was hitting centuries at will during the World Cup, but for that crucial match against New Zealand. And the significance of both ‘IF’ and ‘BUT’ from New Zealand team themselves, as to what separated between them and England in the fateful World Cup 2019 Final Match at Lords.
(The writer is a senior sports journalist)