India enter 2019 with a quiver full of arrows
At the start of the New Year, Indian sport seems ready to take on the world and make a statement.
Indian sport has rarely has it as good at the start of a year. Cricket is on a huge high in the aftermath of the MCG Test win and chances are the dream of an overseas series win will be fulfilled in Sydney. In white ball cricket, India is a force to reckon with and will start the 50-over World Cup in England in summer as one of the favourites along with the hosts.
The core is in place and with Hardik Pandya back in full fitness the middle order vacuum will now be filled. Hardik and Kedar Jadhav have emerged as first choice middle-order players and with Ravindra Jadeja making a solid comeback, Virat Kohli has multiple options up his sleeve. Most importantly, the top three continue to deliver for India. While Shikhar Dhawan fancies ICC multi-nation competitions, Rohit Sharma and Kohli are two of the best players of the white ball game. If only the players’ workloads can be balanced well and the fast bowlers given some much-needed rest during the gruelling IPL, India will be match-ready come the first warm-up game of the World Cup on May 25, 2019.
Olympic sports, with the big prize 18 months down the line, are also looking in decent health. The narrow loss to the Dutch in the World Cup notwithstanding, hockey team under Harendra Singh is on an upward curve and likely to qualify for the 2020 Olympics. The women’s team is also starting to look good to make it to Tokyo.
The two disciplines where the Indians have started to dream of Olympic medals are shooting and badminton.
Shooting has come a long way since the Rio debacle and if the 2018 Youth Olympics are an indication, the future looks golden. India now has multiple world champions in the age group of 15-18 and if they are well protected by mentors like Jaspal Rana, Suma Shirur and Joydeep Karmakar, they have every reason to deliver in Tokyo.
A strong national championship is always an indication of the depth of a particular sport and the most recent one has seen seriously high scores from India’s leading shooters. In Manu Bhaker, Heena Sidhu, Apurvi Chandela, Mehuli Ghosh, Anjum Moudgil, Saurabh Chaudhary, and not to forget Jitu Rai, Gagan Narang, Deepak Kumar and Ravi Kumar, India has a crop, which can easily be labelled the golden generation of Indian shooting.
In badminton, the year-end championships in China has helped undo what was a mediocre year. PV Sindhu has broken the finals jinx and has now reached a stage where she can rightfully start thinking of dominating her sport. With Tai Tzu Ying at the top, Sindhu knows the competition is tough. Tai is a once in a generation player and to beat her isn’t easy. “Tai is beatable. Everyone is,” says Pullela Gopichand, who remains pivotal to the sports’ progress in India. “It is important we plan how we play her,” he adds.
And from the evidence of the year end championships Sindhu has finally figured out a way of beating Tai. “I have to tell you I never put pressure on myself. Even when I had lost a few finals I knew I could turn it around and just needed to keep working hard. That’s all it is about. Keeping focus and keep working hard,” says Sindhu.
With Saina too coming back strong and Sameer Verma taking his game a few notches up, India will have a more than fair chance in Tokyo. Kidambi Srikkanth and HS Prannoy, who both had an underwhelming year, are expected to step up again and with Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty shaping up really well in doubles, multiple medals aren’t a pipedream. The good thing is there is hope in other sports as well. In boxing we continue to have the evergreen Mary Kom and Vikas Krishan and with the brilliant Amit Phangal shaping up well, 2019 should see many Indians qualify for Tokyo. In wrestling Bajrang Punia and Vinesh Phogat are at par with the world’s best and if Bajrang can do what he did at the Asian games, he can emulate Sushil Kumar and Yogeshwar Dutt at Olympic stage.
For the first time perhaps track and field is giving us hope at the start of 2019. Neeraj Chopra is already in the world’s top ten and Tejinder Pal Toor and Hima Das have both shown serious improvement.
With Manika Batra doing the same in Ta b l e Tennis a n d Bhavani Devi in Fencing, I n d i a ’ s dream of becoming
a multi-sporting nation seems closer than ever. And if Sania Mirza can make a dream comeback in 2019 post motherhood, India’s mixed doubles tennis pairing will have a reasonable chance in Tokyo.
There will be challenges, of course.
Fitness issues and more. Luck, so very important in sport, will always be a factor. But at the start of 2019, India seems capable. Keen and poised to take on the world and make a sporting statement. It has rarely happened before and that is what makes the start of the New Year a really vibrant one.