Moneyball: The Manika Touch

It would have been great if the dates of the Commonwealth Games (CWG) in Australia and the ongoing Indian Premier League (IPL) season wouldn't have clashed. Both events are great for Indian sports and one would have wanted to enjoy them with undivided attention. The success at the CWG ensured that Indians cheered for every athlete that participated, and celebrated every medal won, even though for one week both events ran simultaneously.

By sheer size, the IPL rules, but when Indian athletes win 66 medals, of which 26 are gold, a medal-starved nation is bound to erupt with joy, and accolades start trending. There are also the naysayers, who emerge after every CWG and state the obvious – we are good at CWG, but where are the medals at the Asian Games and Olympics. If winning medals in Olympics is the only reason that athletes should exist, and winning a World Cup is the sole reason for human beings to participate in any kind of sport, then we would be bereft of many a magical moment that sportspersons provide us with at all levels, whether it is at a regional or national meet, or even at the school championships.

The existence of the entire sports industry would be threatened if players were told that they are no good unless they bring the Olympic gold home. Along with it would also disappear a large number of jobs which keep the athletes going. India is a sporting nation in the making, and each such success has to be doubly celebrated; and more so if it is at an international level. Just the sight of an Indian participating in global events brings so much joy, that it inspires many more to reach for the sky.

A sport itself gets an impetus when a player or team performs admirably. The growth of badminton is a great example. The rise of superstars such as Saina Nehwal and then PV Sindhu ignited the growth, and now with Kidambi Srikanth scaling the peak to become the world number 1 will only add to the already immense number of participants in the sport.

No wonder that Manika Batra, the star of the CWG campaign, is hoping that her unprecedented run at Gold Coast will spark a table tennis revolution in the country like Saina and Sindhu's victories did for badminton. Manika become the toast of the nation when she won in all the four events, including two gold medals in the singles and team championship.

There were many firsts for the paddlers. It was the first time India won a medal in women's singles, first in mixed doubles, first gold in women's team championship, and Manika's four medals was the most won by an Indian in Australia. But for Manika, the biggest victory will be when TT will become as popular as badminton.

The spinoff from Manika's exploits will be maximum for Ultimate Table Tennis, the six-franchise professional league which will hold its second edition in June. While the inaugural edition was conducted successfully, it did not create much of a flutter. But now CWG has thrown up a star who will brighten proceedings. Manika will be hot property for the teams, and spectator interest will definitely increase. There might be more higher-ranked players in the league, but all eyes will be on her. And that will bring in more sponsors and value to the league. Just to explain what a CWG gold run can do.

The important aspect is to note that the table tennis team and its members' success was not a flash in the pan. It took some serious efforts behind the scenes to reach the winner's podium. It was the usual case of shortage of funding, coaching problems, scams. A report in Firstpost points out that things improved only after the Table Tennis Federation of India got back Massimo Constantini as head coach. The Italian had helped India win five medals in the CWG 2010 in Delhi, and once he was re-appointed, he got down to a proper plan which included playing in professional tours competing against the top players, and a training camp in Portugal. It is also vital to point out that both the Sports Authority of India (SAI) and the regional bodies put in money for implementing Constantini's plan. The difference is there to show in the metal that the team brought home.

This will be the story for any success. Every federation which has put money and thought into developing their players will have a fairy tale to narrate. When the focus is solely on the welfare of the athletes and creating home-grown stars, the sport can only grow. Cricket is everybody's favourite punching bag, but look at the talent the country possesses. The huge interest across the country comes from the players emerging from every corner. This has made Indians the largest consumers of the sport, enabling the Board for Control of Cricket in India (BCCI) to demand the money and get it. Which, when distributed properly, goes back into developing more and better talent.

Badminton, hockey, football, kabaddi, contact sports, distance running are some other success stories. Individual achievements within tennis and golf are also reasons enough for the sport to attract more participation. The proliferation of professional leagues within these sports has spawned a range of business opportunities leading to a robust ecosystem which will produce champions. The success of these champions, at any level, will continue to inspire more, and raise the aspirations of those already toiling to compete with the best.

Running down CWG medals, thrashing cricket for its humungous success, or comparing the value of stars from different sports to win an argument is not the way ahead for India. It is poised to be a multi-sport nation, with cricket leading the way. But the country can achieve sporting greatness, and each sport can raise its value when more Manikas emerge and the touch of their success leads to more gold.

(The author is a co-founder of SportzPower and The Fan Garage)

CP Thomas