A flurry of outstanding performances

A. VINOD

Anju Bobby George... soaring high in women's long jump. -- Pic. AP-

IT would be a bit too early to announce the arrival of Indian sport. Yet, as we look back through the past twelve months, the many vivid images of our young sportspersons making headway in international sports is sure to be etched in our memory. It was a year which did provide a window of opportunity to our youngsters to showcase their talent and realise their potential in the international arena. And what could never be dismissed is the truth that these heart-warming performances came not from our cricketers alone but from those who had often been written off as also-rans.

The sight of Rahul Dravid, for sure, kissing the Indian crest in his cap after helping India to its now famous victory against Australia at home in the Adelaide Test, could ever remain an inspiration. So would remain the images of Anju Bobby George kicking the sand to emerge as the first Indian to win a medal in the World athletics championships, Sania Mirza exulting in the company of her equally young Russian partner Alisa Kleybanova in Wimbledon, Pankaj Advani pumping the air after winning the World snooker title, Dhanraj Pillai and the rest of the Indian hockey team experiencing a new high in the Asia Cup, the Indian under-18 football team and the East Bengal side proving their detractors wrong, Viswanathan Anand winning a fifth World chess title of sorts and the ever cheerful Anjali Vedpathak Bhagwat enjoying yet another wonderful European summer. Not to leave out the talented volleyball team, which though let the World youth title out of its grasp, still did India proud and, what more, provided a definite morale-booster to that sport in this country.

Pankaj Advani... adding the World title to his collection. — Pic. K. GOPINATHAN-

Indeed, 16-year-old Sania Mirza might not have brought back the women's singles title from the fabled lawns of the world's most prestigious tennis tournament. But then, her triumph in the junior girls' doubles in the company of Russian teenager Alisa Kleybanova was undoubtedly a shot in the arm for Indian sport as such, so much so that this first-ever title for an Indian woman in Wimbledon only seemed to be a trend-setter in the months that followed. Precisely 51 years ago, a certain Rita Davor had been beaten in three sets in the 1952 junior girls' final and thereafter no other Indian girl or woman had been able to come anywhere near to the top either in the All England Championships or for that matter any other Grand Slam event before Sania and her partner bounced back from a set down to overcome their rivals.

No, the euphoric triumph of Sania in Wimbledon was by no means a flash in the pan, as the Hyderabad teenager had been good enough to reach the doubles semifinals in the French Open just a fortnight earlier, providing glimpses of the vast talent in her which incidentally was clearly visible during last year's 14th Asian Games in Busan itself and the many ITF tournaments that she took part in since then. For good measure, her fruitful run of four golds, even as the Indian team swept all the seven titles which were up for grabs, in the inaugural Afro-Asian Games, was just another example of the strides that she had taken through the last couple of seasons. A great show without doubt when you consider that India had failed in its campaign to get into the Davis Cup main draw, being ousted by the Dutch in a difficult away tie after having got to the playoffs with easy wins over Japan and New Zealand in the Asia-Oceania Group.

Sania Mirza (right), in partnership with Alisa Kleybanova of Russia, won the Wimbledon girls' doubles crown. — Pic. PHIL COLE/GETTY IMAGES-

But, amidst all this, the agony that the Indian tennis fans did suffer when Leander Paes was hospitalised in Orlanda, United States, could hardly be forgotten. The mercurial star, who had almost single-handedly been helpful in keeping the Indian tri-colour aloft in the international arena through the past decade or more and who had just weeks ago won the Wimbledon mixed doubles title along with the peerless Martina Navaratilova, was initially reported to be suffering from a brain lesion that was feared to be cancerous. But as it were, much to the glee of his supporters and well-wishers, the tumour turned out to be a mere parasytic infection of tapeworm and an emotionally-driven Paes as he was discharged was for once left with few words. Now that the Kolkata-born has decided to team up with Mahesh Bhupathi once again, the Indian tennis fans could not have asked for more. They had won the Busan Asian Games gold during their last appearance together and should they find the magic touch again could well bring back the Olympic title from Athens next year and make additions to the Grand Slam titles they have won over the years.

India's other hope in the Greek capital, when the world's most glamorous of all sporting events returns to its place of origin after a gap of 108 years, could well be the top markswoman in Anjali Vedpathak Bhagwat. Though she had to settle for the silver in her pet event — 10m air rifle — in the Hyderabad Afro-Asian Games, the gritty Mumbai-born did have her share of glory in the Andhra capital, even as India finished overall second to China in the much-ridiculed Games with a tally of 19 golds, 32 silvers and 29 bronzes as the event was finally out of the starting blocks almost two decades after it was originally conceived. But to Anjali, what should have given immense satisfaction would be the string of wins that she achieved against her arch-rivals on the European circuit. For shooting buffs, there was also good news from two others — Abhinav Bhindra and Major Rajvardhan Rathore, though their cup of joy would have been full had Jaspal Rana too had found his wonted form. Off the field, the youth brigade which has taken over the reins of Indian chess did continue to make waves but again it was Viswanathan Anand who stole the thunder as he took the World rapid chess title at Cap D'agde in France. And much like that, Pankaj Advani, only 19, had also an appropriate Diwali gift in store for the whole nation as he came past his Pakistani rival, Mohammed Saleh, in the World amateur snooker finals in the Chinese city of Jiangmen and thus became only the second Indian after Om Agarwal to win the coveted title. It would have been a perfect and wonderful double had Geet Sethi won the World billiards title but it was not to be so as the ace cueist lost a close final to Lee Lagan in Hyderabad.

Anjali Vedpathak Bhagwat achieved a string of wins against her arch-rivals on the European circuit. — Pic. K. R. DEEPAK-

It is only true that the Indian under-18 team as it returned from Wales with the M.M. Ford Trophy as winners of the Ian Rush international youth football tournament might have failed to receive the same media space that many of the youth teams gained during the same period. But given the fact that Indian football continues to remain a sleeping giant, the achievement of this team was notably impressive as was the triumph registered by the East Bengal team in the Asean Club championship in Thailand. The two rare wins only proving that Indian football has the talent to go up the ladder should the powers-that-be swing into action giving up their lethargic approach.

Perhaps, like what the Volleyball Federation of India did in moulding up a strong and effective side to take on the rest of the world. But for that final loss to Brazil, a side which it had quite convincingly beaten in the preliminary stage, it was still a creditworthy show by the Indian team in the World youth championship even as it finished runner-up. Maybe, as it gets promoted to the senior ranks, India, should the authorities show the same commitment, could hopefully develop into a world-beater in the years to come.

JanuaryViswanathan Anand took the World rapid chess title at Cap D'agde in France. -- Pic. ARVIND AARON-

Away from all these scenes of action, India also won the right to host the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi. Winning the battle against Hamilton, the other city which was in the fray, quite handsomely the Indian sports administrators would have won a diplomatic battle. But having committed themselves to a $ 422-million extravaganza, it would only be fitting if they wake up to the reality to shore up the country's fortunes in the international arena during the intervening period. Or else, it would be just a drain of our resources, to say the least.

Truly, it has been an amazing year. The flurry of some outstanding performances by our young stars bringing us immeasurable joy and excitement. But then, the fact that none of our senior teams, barring hockey, is yet to break into the elite zone of their respective disciplines sadly remains. Only when they, or at least a few of them, make the breakthrough could we gloss over the wins, however tremendous it might be, eked out by our youngsters. More importantly, it would be only then that we would be able to announce the arrival of Indian sport. In right earnest and without any hype attached to it.