2017 has been a remarkable journey for the Indian sports. Still on sporting infrastructure and culture we have miles to go
‘Bye-Bye 2017. Nostalgia, thy name is life’, some say. Welcome 2018. Move ahead, others counter argue. Both the arguments hold fort. The superstructure of the brighter tomorrow is built on the infrastructure of lessons learnt from the recent past. This holds truth of life. The same holds true of the sports as well. Let us start with cricket—the nation’s sporting heartbeat. Men in Blue’s performance across all the three formats of the game proved to be the best ever in 2017. Across formats, only the all-conquering Australians of 2003, with 38 wins from 47 games managed more victories than India’s 37 from 53 matches this year. Virat Kohli’s brigade consolidated its hold as numero uno test team of the world and bullied the opposition in the shorter formats of the game. The only blip was the Champions Trophy, where the team had to be content with runners up position. In cricket, statistics is the prime indicator—but it’s not the complete X-Ray of the health of the team. More important than the statistics per se, is the present health of the team. Never before, the Indian Cricket Team had so many options as it’s today.
India has perhaps three of the best opening batsmen in the world cricket today. Murali Vijay, KL Rahul and Shikhar Dhawan are perhaps among the best in the business. Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane, Cheteswar Pujara and Rohit Sharma comprise formidable batting armory. In Dhoni, the team has one of the greatest ever wicketkeeper batsmen in the world cricket who also brings in lot of experience in terms of strategy and planning. But as the Head Coach Ravi Shastri says,“What separates the team from all the past teams is the bowling arsenal where there are problems of plenty and exceptional all round fielding ability. The team has got variety in bowling, so it can take 20 wickets in any given conditions”. In pace bowling the team has Bhuvneswar Kumar, Mohammad Shami, Jasprit Bumrah, much improved Ishant Sharma and bowling all-rounder Hardik Pandya. In spin department there is a cut throat competition between R Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Kuldeep Yadav and Yajuvinder Chahal. When did Indian team have such a quality of plenty in the recent past? And, it’s this which gives the sports lovers the confidence that team will face the stiffer challenges ahead in 2018.
2018 is going to be the year; the year where the victory won in the home conditions in 2017 has to be emulated in foreign and alien conditions. The team will face the three of the most testing and challenging tours of South Africa, England and Australia. If Kohli’s team is able to scale these summits, it will be the best ever all round Indian team. Indian team is yet to win a test series in South Africa and Australia before. But what gives the team management the confidence to do so for the first time ever? Firstly, the exemplary work ethics of the skipper Kohli—who
challenges himself beyond the limit. This has percolated down the order and has become the happy disease for the team. The current team doesn’t believe in any excuses and has made fighting back from the verge their habit. In the words of the Shastri, spoken on the eve of last Australia series,‘Earlier two teams which came here also lost 0-4! We have not won here ever. But what matters is the fight which we give and the character which we show on the field. If we are able to show that character, I give two hoots even if we lose again’. The important thing is that the team should take 2018 litmus test as an opportunity to pitchfork itself into the unprecedented unchartered domain.
2018 is also about the two multi sporting events which will test the progress of the country in terms of
preparations for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Rio Olympics 2016 results were along the predictable lines far from encouraging and 2 year time is too short to bring about a seminal change in the cut throat world of Olympic sports. The Union Government has taken some of the major transformative steps like Khelo India and TOP scheme which will take its time to mature and reach its fructification. India, in Olympic champion Rajyawardhan Singh Rathore, has got a Sports Minister who is working with the clear cut objective and purpose based on ‘Sports person being the only VIP’ and accordingly bringing about the changes in the sports governance. “Apart from this, the country is awaiting transformational changes like Sports Code Bill. The changes being brought about by the government will take its time to deliver results, but Commonwealth Games and Asian Games will definitely be an indicator. The fact that someone like Rathore heads the ministry gives sports-lovers tremendous hope and confidence”, says Sanjeeb Mukherjee. More than the medals won and lost, the country will certainly see the change in terms of transparency and fair-play, and Indian contingent will be selected and managed for the two major events of the year i.e. The Commonwealth Games in the Gold Coast, Australia and Asian Games in Jakarta.
Amidst the popular catch-line of ‘Future Hai Football’—the most popular global game, biggest competition FIFA World Cup will kick off in Russia. In 2017, India successfully organised FIFA U-17 World Cup with historic attendance during its matches. The Government of India took a laudable initiative of building a lasting legacy of the games in terms of involving the schools around the country to play football. With the popularity of Indian Soccer League increasing and the initiatives being taken at the grass root level, Indian football does give us hope. But India has miles to go before it
reaches the global level of competing in the FIFA World Cup. For now, the football lovers of the country will have to be content cheering the countries like Brazil, Spain, Germany and Netherlands in the FIFA World Cup 2017.
Badminton, Never Been As Good
While ‘Future May Be Football’, badminton has already taken over in the country. Taking cue from the legendary women duo of PV Sindu and Saina Nehwal, their male counterpart not only did the catching up but also went a notch ahead. India’s badminton record has never been as good as it has been this year, with an Indian team featuring in the top five players of the world among men as well as among women. Kidambi Srikanth at fourth position among men and PV Sindhu at third place among women have powered India’s rise to the top of the charts this year. The median singles rank of the top five players has risen from 28 to 17 for men, the biggest rise since 2010. The rise in the median singles rank of the top five players for women has been slower, from 57 last year to 49 this year. The rise in rankings follows impressive performances by top-ranked players such as Srikanth and Prannoy HS as well as by relatively lower-ranked players such as Ajay Jayaram and B Sai Praneeth. Prannoy beat both Olympic silver medalist Lee Chong and gold medalist Chen Long in the Indonesian Open this year. Srikanth went on to win the title after Prannoy lost in the semi-final to Japan’s Kazu Sakai. Srikanth’s and Prannoy’s performances have been especially impressive. The former has risen nine positions to finish at fourth this year while the latter has risen 19 rungs to finish at 10th. 2017 has also been great for PV Sindhu, who has risen from the 10th rank at the start of the year to finish third. Saina Nehwal, who has been recovering from injury, slipped one place from ninth to 10th. There are no reasons as to why 2018 could not be better. P Gopichand, on whose shuttle the Indian badminton has rocketed says, “Olympic silver medalist PV Sindhu will take Indian badminton through for at least next four years and I could foresee strong bench strength emerging at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games”. If badminton is taking over, Indian women hockey team and Indian women cricket team had their ‘Chak De Moments’ in 2017.
When the Indian women’s team boarded the flight to Japan for the 2017 Asia Cup on October 23, a top four finish was considered a realistic target in the field that had China, Korea, and Japan- all ranked higher than then no 12 India. Around two weeks later, India had beaten Japan in the semis and China in the final on November 5 to win their first Asia Cup in 13 years. The feat, accomplished without losing a single match, lifted the team to its best ever FIH ranking of No10. As the coach of the women team Harendra Singh says, “Until I think of Mt Everest, I won’t be able to climb Kanchenjunga. The first day as coach, I set up a ‘Mission 2018’ WhatsApp group for the team. We want to directly qualify for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics with Asian Games gold. Once we achieve that, the name of the group will change to ‘Mission 2020”. Three major sporting events-the Commonwealth Games, the Asian Games and the World Cup—are slotted for 2018, making it a critical year for both men’s and women’s hockey.
India has miles to go before it becomes a sporting power. An Indian is yet to win gold medal in athletics in the Olympics, be the champion in the singles in the Wimbledon or be the winner in the Formula One race. Indian team is yet to participate in the FIFA World Cup Football. But milestones sporting missions are achieved after taking sure footed baby steps. In some of the major sports in 2017 India showed—‘Hum Hain Na’. In 2018, the athletes of these sports will have an opportunity to say, ‘Hum Kisi se Kam Naheen’. And, this could propel the protagonists of the other sports to try to be champions in their respective fields— making India a truly sporting nation.
(The writer is a senior sports journalist)