India’s sporting year that was

The biggest sporting moment for India this year

The sands of time are trickling down on the world of sports too. And before we turn the hour glass around to start the year 2012, it would be nice to revisit some of the moments from Indian sport that made 2011 the year that it was.

They spilled on the roads, countless faces painted with national colours, waving the Tricolour, airing slogans as India broke into one large and spontaneous celebration of the conquest of the ICC Cricket World Cup 2011 on April 2. There have been few more telling demonstrations of outpouring of collective National pride than late that night. That cricket is one of the few refuges for nationalism was cast in stone that night.

There was so much to cherish. The emergence of Yuvraj Singh as Man of the Series in the World Cup, for instance. Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s blitzkrieg in the World Cup final against Sri Lanka and Sachin Tendulkar’s 99th international hundred – secured against South Africa at Nagpur during the World Cup caused much excitement.

The redoubtable Rahul Dravid and the mercurial Virat Kohli top the charts as the world’s leading run-scorers in Tests and one-day internationals respectively. Virender Sehwag world record score 219 against the West Indies are other examples. Of course, and the wait for the 100th century has caught the nation’s fancy. The surfacing of Umesh Yadav and Varun Aaron as fast bowlers as well as the rise of Pragyan Ojha and R Ashwin as the new spin twins augured well for India as it won the home Test series against the West Indies. Of course, the tour of England came as an eminently forgettable interlude this year, with the Indian team losing all the four Tests by enormous margins.

Similarly, the hockey team took us on a roller coaster ride this year. It came into its own by winning the Asian Champions Trophy at Ordos in China with a victory over Asian Games champion Pakistan in the final on September 11, 2011. Goalkeeper S. Sreejesh stole the limelight with two crucial saves as India defeated Pakistan 4-2 in the penalty shoot-out in the nerve-wrecking final that had ended goalless after extra-time.

The low came when India squandered a two-goal advantage and conceded a last-minute goal to lose 3-4 to Belgium in the final of the Champions Challenge I hockey tournament in Johannesburg on December 4. Striker Florent van Aubel caught the Indian defenders off-guard and scored the all-important winner for Belgium to not only hand Belgium the gold medal but also a maiden place in next year’s Champions Trophy in Australia.

There was plenty of good news from India’s bunch of elite shooters through the year. On April 14, Sanjeev Rajput emulated 10m air rifle ace Gagan Narang and rookie 50m prone shooter Hariom Singh in qualifying for the London Olympic Games by winning gold in the 50m three-position event in the World Cup at Changwon in Korea. Ronjan Sodhi, India’s top double trap marksman, won a silver in the World Cup at Beijing in April 26 to become the first Indian shotgun shooter to make sure of being at the London Games.  The next month, Vijay Kumar lost gold in a shoot-off to Germany’s Christian Reitz in the 25m rapidfire pistol event while Annuraj Singh won a silver medal in the women’s 10m air rifle event and Rahi Sarnobat bronze in the women’s 25m air pistol event at the World Cup in Fort Benning. Abhinav Bindra had to wait till June 18 to ensure a place in the Olympics. He finished eighth in the World Cup in Munich and put himself on course to retaining the Olympic gold he won in Beijing.

Indian trap shooter Shagun Chowdhary qualified for the 2012 London Olympics with a fourth place finish in the Women’s Trap event in the Shotgun World Championship in Belgrade on September 11. Ronjan Sodhi became the World No. 1 in August and retained the gold medal at the World Cup Finals at Al Ain in UAE on October 5 when he beat Olympic bronze medallist Hu Binyuan of China in a tie shoot. But that was not all. The 22-year-old Man Singh made history by becoming the first Indian to win the Asian Championship in Kuala Lumpur on November 30. What’s more he was also part of the squad that won the team gold. And if there was some disappointment, it has to do with 2004 Olympic Games silver medallist Rajyavardhan Rathore not being able to get his form back.

Four boxers (Devendro Singh in the 49kg class, Jai Bhagwan in the 60kg class, Manoj Kumar in the 64kg class and Vikas Krishan in the 69kg class) made our hearts swell with pride as they made it to the quarterfinals of the World Championship in Baku and thus ensured themselves a slot in the Olympic Games. The 19-year-old Vikas Krishan went a step further and claimed a bronze medal in the world championship, marking himself among the favourites from India to be among medal contention in London.

The women’s recurve archers Laishram Bombayla Devi, Deepika Kumari and Chekrovolu Swuro made it to the final of the World championship in Turin and booked three Olympic quota places. The recurve team outscored defending champion Korea in the semifinals 216-212 to make the maiden entry into the final. The best by an Indian women’s team earlier was a fourth place finish at the 2005 Madrid World Championships, where the Indian men’s team moved into the final and settled for silver. The men’s team had to face disappointment this time around.

Towards the end of a year in which she faced an ankle injury, Saina Nehwal made it to the final of the BWF Super Series Finals in Liuzhou, China. She did not win a crown this year but she entered the title round in four major tournaments and finished the year ranked fourth in the world. Jwala Gutta and Ashwini Ponappa won the bronze medal at the World Championship at the Wembley Arena in London on August 14. They became the first Indians in 28 years to win a medal at the World championships. PV Sindhu is emerging as a player to watch, having risen from 151 to 42nd in the world rankings.

Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi came together after a long gap, discovered their friendship, won three hardcourt titles on the ATP Tour and made it to the final of the Australian Open and the semifinal of the season-ending Finals but parted ways at the end of the year, leaving Indians guessing about the doubles combinations that would play in the Olympic Games in 2012. Sania Mirza

The 22-year-old Mayookha Johny became the first Indian woman to break through the 14-metre barrier in triple jump at the Asian Grand Prix in Wujiang, China on May 30. She won long jump gold with a 6.56m effort at the Asian Athletics Championship at Kobe in Japan on July 8 after Vikas Gowda won discus silver. She went on to become only the third Indian to make it to the final of an event at the IAAF World Championship when she finished ninth in the long jump in Daegu, Korea on August 28.

These performances came after we were made to hang our heads by topnotch athletes who tested positive for banned substances. Ashwini Akkunji, Mandeep Kaur and Sini Jose, all part of the celebrated Indian 4x400m squad, were among seven athletes who tested positive in May and June. After a series of hearings, they were handed suspensions on December 23.

There were some moments that caused lumps in our throats. Bhaichung Bhutia announced in August that he would not play any more international football, and gave us one such moment. For he had donned India colours with dignity and passion for 16 years and in more than 100 matches, scoring 43 goals and leading the team for much of the time. And, we will be deprived of the legendary Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi’s company, the former India cricket captain who gave our national team a common identity passing away on September 22 after a brief respiratory illness. He spoke little but commanded respect every time he said something.

India placed itself on a very elite map when it hosted the Formula One Grand Prix of India in October a couple of months after the 2010 FIFA World Player of the Year Lionel Messi showcased his skills in a friendly between Argentina and Venezuela in Kolkata. These events showed to the world that India would readily embrace sport and sportspeople who it has spent a couple of decades watching passionately on live TV.

Away from the field of play, news that sportspersons had become eligible for the nation’s highest award, the Bharat Ratna, warmed the cockles of many a heart even as the announcement sparked a debate about who should be the first Indian sportsperson to be given the award. The Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports has worked overtime to move the National Sports Development Sports Bill but may have to wait for a while before that dream comes true.

Talking of dreams, we have plenty to look forward to in the coming year. As we speak, the Indian cricket team is in Australia with hope in its hearts. The hockey fraternity will look for the Olympic qualifier in Delhi as the first of several steps towards regaining a place among the elite. The genial V Anand will bid fair to defend his World Chess Championship in a match against Boris Gelfand of Israel in Russia from May 10 to 31.

The success of the Indian athletes in the Olympic Games in Beijing where Abhinav Bindra’s gold medal was accompanied by bronze medals for Sushil Kumar in wrestling and Vijender Kumar in boxing and in the Commonwealth Games and Asian Games in 2010 have spurred our aspirations. And we are hoping to surpass our best showing when the London Games are held from July 27 to August 12. Perhaps, there will be ample reason for all of India to spill on to the roads again. In celebration.

(This was a draft for a review of India’s  sporting year for a broadcast on All India Radio).