If you leave out cricket, 2017 would appear to be a melange of good and bad for Indian sports. The resounding success of Indian shuttlers provided a silver lining to the country’s ambitions of being a sporting power house. Contrast that with the performance graph of other popular disciplines like boxing, shooting, hockey and wrestling — they were modest at best. Looking at the packed 2018 sporting calendar unfolding in a couple of days from now, Indian sportspersons have a lot at stake in the run up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
It would be fair to say that 2017 was a watershed year for Indian badminton. Ace shuttler PV Sindhu scaled new heights to cement her place in the top rung of the elite senior circuit with three title triumphs and as many runner-up finishes. However, with four titles under his belt, it was Kidambi Srikanth who took the badminton world by storm. The Hyderabad lad also must be credited for pulling Indian male shuttlers out of the shadows of their illustrious female counterparts. B. Sai Praneeth and HS Prannoy too rendered crackling performances on the international stage.
A memorable aspect of 2017 was the return of Saina Nehwal. The London Olympics bronze medallist made a great comeback early in the year by clinching the Malaysia Masters GP Gold. She gave proof of her progress by bagging a bronze at the World Championship.
Though Sindhu endured three painful final losses — World Championship, Hong Kong Open and Dubai Super Series Finals — she enjoyed the high of clinching Super Series titles at the India Open and Korea Open, besides winning the Syed Modi Grand Prix Gold. Srikanth’s ability to peak in successive weeks twice in a year made him the first Indian to win four titles in a season, a feat only achieved by the iconic Lin Dan, Lee Chong Wei and Chen Long.
The confidence gained with these high profile wins definitely enhances their abilities to make the most of the gruelling schedule lined up in 2018. And though Saina, Sindhu and Srikanth have done what it takes to justify their high ratings, there’s something still missing from their list of victories. All the shuttlers are yet to taste success at the most prestigious event in the badminton calendar — the All England Open, scheduled to be held between March 14 and 18 at Birmingham. Barring the two legends of the game in India — Prakash Padukone (1980) and Pullela Gopichand (2001) — no other Indian shuttler has come close to clinching the esteemed title.
The All England title has never been a walk in the park, but with an assembly line of battle-ready champions, India has a chance to better its record. Given the rich vein of form shown consistently by the top Indian players, 2018 provides an ideal set up for India to break the jinx.
It’s not just Sindhu or Srikanth who will carry the mantle for ending the drought at the All England Open. The present line-up comprises a bunch of shuttlers who are more than capable of beating the best in the business. Sindhu and Srikanth dominated the year, and Praneeth and Prannoy also made rapid strides with the former defeating Srikanth at the Singapore Open in an all-Indian final to claim his maiden Super Series title. Six weeks later, Praneeth secured the Thailand Grand Prix Gold title. Prannoy also stunned Lee Chong Wei and Chen Long on successive days to reach the semifinals at the Indonesia Open before winning the US Open GP Gold in another all-India final, beating P Kashyap.
With three mega events other than the All England Open scheduled in 2018 —Commonwealth Games (April, Australia), BWF World Championships (August, China) and Asian Games (August, Indonesia) — Indian shuttlers have everything to scale even greater heights.
EYE ON TARGET
While the senior marksmen of the country failed to hit the bull’s eye for the most part of 2017, it is the encouraging display by the junior shooters, which gives hope going into 2018, and beyond.
The exploits of future stars Elavenil Valarivan, Meghana Sajjanar, Mehuli Ghosh, Anish Bhanwala and Shapath Bharadwaj augurs well for Indian shooting, a sport which has given the country five individual Olympic medals since 2004. Riding on their impressive performances at the junior circuit, Mehuli and Manu Bhakar (women’s 10m air rifle and air pistol) and Tushar Mane and Saurabh Chaudhary (in the men’s event) have secured quotas for the 2018 Youth Olympic Games, to be held at Buenos Aires in September.
In the senior category, double trap exponent Ankur Mittal has been one of the biggest success stories, winning a silver and gold in successive ISSF World Cups.
One of India’s prime medal prospects, who missed out on a podium finish at the Rio Olympics, was pistol shooter Jitu Rai. Given his high standards, Rai had a modest year, winning a bronze at the Asian Airgun meet, besides combining with Heena Sidhu to clinch the mixed air pistol gold at the season-opening World Cup Final in New Delhi.
In the test event for the Commonwealth Games, India finished with 20 medals. The country continued to impress in the Asian Airgun Championship in Japan, where it finished with 21 medals. With three big-ticket events — CWG, Asian Games and World Championship — lined up for 2018, it’s fair to assume that the experienced brigade will be eager to turn the spotlight on to them, while the upcoming talents will give it their all to make a mark.
STICK TO BASICS
While Indian hockey maintained its dominance at the continental level, success on the global stage continued to elude the onetime powerhouse of the sport. The Asia Cup crown, which came after a 10-year wait, and the year-end bronze at the Hockey World League Finals were the two high points for the men’s field hockey team. The women’s team, on the other hand, had a good year, winning only their second Asia Cup title in November to storm into the top-10 of FIH rankings for the first time.
For the men’s team, the year began with a bronze at the Azlan Shah Cup and ended likewise with a third place finish at the Hockey World League Finals held at Bhubaneswar. After a few decent outings in the three-nation tournament in Germany, India won a couple of Test matches against top sides like the Netherlands during its tour of Europe. However, they stumbled badly in the Hockey World League semifinals held in London, losing to lower-ranked Malaysia and Canada to finish sixth.
The humiliation led to the sacking of Dutch coach Roelant Oltmans. His replacement was compatriot Sjoerd Marijne, who was managing the women’s team at the time. Marijne tasted instant success with India clinching the Asia Cup title at Dhaka after a decade’s gap. With India all set to host the 2018 men’s World Cup — at Bhubaneswar from November 24 to December 16 — Marijne and Manpreet Singh & Co. will have their task cut out if India wants to end its agonising wait for that elusive world title. A good performance at the Commonwealth Games and Asian Games before that will surely help their cause. The new benchmarks they have set for themselves have raised expectations.
For the women, the Asia Cup success helped them automatically qualify for the 2018 World Cup. In between, the Indian eves won gold at the Hockey World League Round 2, but finished eighth in the HWL Semifinal, thereby failing to qualify for the HWL Final.
While the shuttlers provided the loudest cheer for Indian sports in the year going by, the performance of the boxers and wrestlers left much to be desired. In boxing, Mary Kom’s gold at the Asian Championships and Gaurav Bidhuri’s bronze at the World Championships were the only stand out performances. In August, India’s hopes of witnessing a boxer in the finals of the World Championships were dashed after Gaurav Bidhuri fell short in his bantamweight (56kg) semifinal bout to settle for the bronze. The 24-year-old Delhi boxer became only the fourth Indian pugilist to win a World Championships bronze.
The big story of the year was the golden return of the undisputed queen of Indian boxing — MC Mary Kom. After a long layoff, the London Games bronze medallist returned to her ruthless best at the Asian Women’s Boxing Championships at Vietnam in November, picking up an unprecedented fifth gold in the 48-kg category. It was Mary’s first international gold since the 2014 Asian Games and her first medal in over a year.
Mary’s show was followed by another gold rush for India at the AIBA World Women’s Youth Boxing Championships in Guwahati, with the country’s pugilists bagging five top positions to finish overall champions for the first time. The women boxers’ form augurs well for India as it gets ready to host the Women’s World Championships in November next year.
The year ended in good fashion for another veteran Indian sportsman on a comeback trail — wrestler Sushil Kumar. The double Olympic medallist made a glorious return to the international arena by clinching gold at the Commonwealth Wrestling Championships in Johannesburg earlier this month. Sushil returned to competitive wrestling after three years in November at the Senior Nationals where he won gold amid controversy after getting three walkovers from his fellow wrestlers. But he was at his best in Johannesburg, defeating his opponent from New Zealand via pinfall in the final of the 74-kg freestyle category.
Olympic medallist Sakshi Malik, who won bronze at the 2016 Rio Games, bagged gold in the same championships in the 62-kg freestyle category. Indians will be rooting for them to carry forward their good form into next year’s World Championships, to be held in Hungary between October 22 and 28.
EYE ON CWG/ ASIAN GAMES
With two of the biggest multi-sport events after the Olympic Games lined up for next year — the Commonwealth Games in Australia’s Gold Coast in April and the Asian Games in Jakarta in August — a good show by Indian sportspersons will provide the much-needed boost ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. In September, the sports ministry added 107 athletes to the list of those who will get funds for training under the Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS) for next year’s CWG and Asian Games. Out of 107, only four were picked for the 2020 Olympic Games while the remaining were only chosen for the Commonwealth and Asian Games. With the addition of 107 sportspersons to the list, the total number has gone up to 152. With preparations in full swing, the stakes will turn higher in 2018. So, fasten your seatbelts and cheer the gold hunt.