Best of 2021: 12 moments to cherish

Pandemic notwithstanding, 2021 was a great year for Indian sport, with athletes showing remarkable mental and physical reserves to succeed. Here is a look at 12 of the best moments from 2021.

N. Sudarshan
TOPSHOT - India's batsman Rishabh Pant plays a shot over the boundary line for six runs on day five of the fourth cricket Test match between Australia and India at The Gabba in Brisbane on January 19, 2021. (Photo by Patrick HAMILTON / AFP) / --IMAGE RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - STRICTLY NO COMMERCIAL USE--

Aussies floored by swashbuckling Pant

In January, Rishabh Pant led India to one of its greatest Test triumphs, in the final Test against Australia in Brisbane. The southpaw’s swashbuckling 89 not out helped India chase down a venue-record 328 on the final day and clinch the series 2-1. Pat Cummins, the current Australia captain, gave his side a fighting chance by picking four of the first five wickets to fall on Day 5. But the trio of Shubman Gill, Cheteshwar Pujara and Pant carried an injury-depleted India home with three overs to spare and provide a fitting end to what was a capricious, but exciting series. The fact that India’s humiliating 36 all out in the opening Test of that series is now a mere afterthought says it all.

READ: 2021 - a year of highs for Indian cricket

GOLD COAST, AUSTRALIA - OCTOBER 01: Smriti Mandhana of India celebrates her century during day two of the Women's International Test match between Australia and India at Metricon Stadium on October 01, 2021 in Gold Coast, Australia. (Photo by Matt Roberts/Getty Images)

Smriti Mandhana’s classy debut century

Smriti Mandhana capped the India women’s debut in day-night Tests with a remarkable first-innings century (127) against Australia at Carrara Oval in October. The one-off Test ended in a draw but will forever be remembered for Mandhana’s splendid batting, What was her maiden Test century was also the first by an Indian woman on Australian soil and only the second by an Indian against Australia women. The Test was only India’s second since 2014, after the match against England in June which too ended in a draw.

TOKYO, JAPAN - AUGUST 07: Neeraj Chopra of Team India reacts after competing in the Men's Javelin Throw final on day fifteen of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Olympic Stadium on August 07, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Neeraj Chopra’s meteoric rise

In early August, 23-year-old Neeraj Chopra made history as the first Indian to win a track and field gold medal at the Olympics with a stunning 87.58m throw in the men’s javelin final at Tokyo 2020. In the process, he also became only the second Indian to win an individual Olympic gold after Abhinav Bindra (2008 Beijing). The victory quenched the nation’s thirst for an athletics medal after having witnessed some heart-breaking misses with Milkha Singh (400m, 1960 Rome) and P. T. Usha (400m hurdles, 1984 Los Angeles), both falling short of the bronze by a hairsbreadth. It was only apt that Neeraj later dedicated his medal to the legendary Milkha who passed away in June.

Tokyo: India's Pusarla V. Sindhu competes against Ksenia Polikarpova during their women's singles badminton match at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Sunday, July 25, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan. (PTI Photo)(AP07_25_2021_000125B)

P. V. Sindhu’s ever-growing halo

P. V. Sindhu became only the first Indian woman to win multiple individual Olympic medals when she secured the badminton singles bronze at Tokyo 2020 to add to the silver from Rio five years ago. After losing the semifinal to Taipei’s Tai Tzu-ying, Sindhu beat He Bingjiao of China in the playoff easily (21-13, 21-15) to join Sushil Kumar as the only other Indian Olympian to have two individual medals. To have won two medals across two Olympic cycles is a stunning effort in what is considered a golden era for women’s badminton, with no less than half a dozen contenders for the three available places.

TOKYO, JAPAN - AUGUST 05: Varun Kumar (L) of Team India reacts with the team after winning the Men's Bronze medal match between Germany and India on day thirteen of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Oi Hockey Stadium on August 05, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images)

Men’s hockey bridging the gap with its golden past

The Indian men’s hockey team ended a 41-year wait for an Olympic medal by clinching the bronze with a thrilling 5-4 victory over Germany. By the 25-minute mark, India was down 1-3 only for Harmanpreet Singh to score twice from penalty corners to make it 3-3 and Simranjeet Singh and Rupinder Pal Singh to give India a 5-3 lead with a little less than two quarters left. Germany probed and got one goal back but P. R. Sreejesh & Co. held firm to earn the nation its first medal since the gold at the 1980 Moscow games won under V. Baskaran.

TOKYO, JAPAN - AUGUST 02: Navneet Kaur, Neha Neha and Lalremsiami of Team India celebrate their 1-0 win with teammates while Karri Somerville reacts after the Women's Quarterfinal match between Australia and India on day ten of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Oi Hockey Stadium on August 02, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images) *** BESTPIX ***

Women’s hockey team’s historic first

A gallant Indian women’s team may have fallen agonisingly short of a bronze medal, after losing 3-4 to 2016 gold medallist Great Britain, but it’s narrow 1-0 win over three-time Olympic gold medallist Australia in the quarterfinal will be etched in memory forever. It was the first time in Olympic history that the women had qualified for the last four and it came via a superb backs-to-the-wall performance against the Aussies. Rani Rampal & Co. showed the same fighting spirit that had carried them through after having opened with three successive defeats in the group stages. They may have not won a medal but after having finished 12th out of 12 teams at Rio 2016, the performance in Tokyo will glint like gold.


Mirabai Chanu’s triumphant opening act

Weight-lifter Mirabai Chanu was India’s first medallist in Tokyo, managing a total lift of 202kgs (87kgs in snatch + 115kgs in clean and jerk) in the 49-kg category to claim silver. In the process, she became only the second Indian weight-lifter after Karnam Malleswari (Sydney 2000, bronze) to win an Olympic medal. Mirabai had also qualified for Rio 2016, but the competition ended in agony as she failed to produce a single successful lift in any of her three clean and jerk attempts. In a remarkable turnaround since then, Mirabai won a World Championship gold in 2017, Commonwealth Games gold in 2018 before the Tokyo high.

TOKYO, JAPAN - AUGUST 07: Bajrang Bajrang of Team india competes against Daulet Niyazbekov of Team Kazakhstan during the Men's Freestyle 65kg Bronze Medal Match on day fifteen of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Makuhari Messe Hall on August 07, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Naomi Baker/Getty Images)

Bajrang Punia’s battling bronze

In a dominant performance, Bajrang Punia defeated three-time Asian Champion Daulet Niyazbekov 8-0 to claim a bronze medal in the men’s wrestling freestyle 65kg division. Bajrang’s was India’s sixth medal in Tokyo, equalling the nation’s best-ever display until then (London 2012), before Neeraj Chopra made it the best-ever. Bajrang had earlier lost 5-12 to Haji Aliyev, Azerbaijan’s three-time world champion, in the semifinal. But he imposed himself from get-go against Niyazbekov, despite carrying injuries in his right knee and left thigh. At the start of the tournament, Bajrang had looked pale and tired. But he recovered, and despite the morale-sapping semifinal defeat, dragged himself to the bronze.

India's Sumit Antil sets a World Record of 68.55 meters and wins the gold medal during the Men's Javelin Throw F44 in the Athletics during the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo, Monday, Aug. 30, 2021. (Joel Marklund for OIS via AP)

Sumit Antil’s record-breaking spree

Sumit Antil broke the javelin throw F64 world record thrice in the final, with the last legal throw clearing 68.55m, to clinch the Tokyo Paralympics gold. The 23-year-old from Sonepat, who lost his left leg below the knee because of a motorbike accident in 2015, first cleared his own world record of 62.88m and went on to set four more best marks, including three in the final. An able-bodied wrestler before his amputation, Sumit earned the just reward for his perseverance in continuing to remain a sportsperson despite the setback.

ASAKA, JAPAN - AUGUST 30: Avani Lekhara of Team India competes on her way to winning the gold medal in the R2 - Women's 10m AR Standing SH1 Qualification on day 6 of the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games at Asaka Shooting Range on August 30, 2021 in Asaka, Japan. (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)

Avani Lekhara’s splendid double

At 19, Avani Lekhara became the first-ever woman to win two Paralympic medals — gold in the 10m air rifle standing and bronze in the 50m rifle 3 positions. The gold in 10m, which came courtesy a world-record equalling performance, was also the first-ever at the Paralympics by an Indian woman. The shooter from Jaipur had sustained spinal cord injuries in a car accident back in 2012. She started shooting in 2015 before turning an international in 2017. At Tokyo, in what was her debut Games, she struck gold, leaving China’s gold medallist from London 2012 and reigning World Champion in Zhang Cuiping, shell-shocked.

TOKYO, JAPAN - SEPTEMBER 04: Pramod Bhagat of Team India celebrates winning against Daniel Bethell of Team Great Britain in the Badminton Men's Singles SL3 Gold Medal Match on day 11 of the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games at Yoyogi National Stadium on September 04, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Kiyoshi Ota/Getty Images)

Pramod Bhagat’s leap into the record books

One of the Olympic year’s enduring images will be that of Pramod Bhagat jump-hugging his coach after becoming India’s first-ever Paralympic badminton gold medallist. It was badminton’s debut at the quadrennial extravaganza and Bhagat made it memorable by clinching the yellow metal in the SL3 event with a victory over Great Britain’s Daniel Bethell. When he was five, polio led to a disability in his left leg. But it didn’t hold him back. A three-time World Champion since 2015, and the Asian Para Games champion in 2018, the Olympic title seemed like a natural progression.

From left, silver medalist India's Kidambi Srikanth, gold medalist Singapore's Loh Kean Yew, bronze mefdalist Denmark's Anders Antonsen and bronze medalist India's Lakshya Sen pose on the podium of the Mens badminton singles at the BWF World Championships in Huelva, Spain, Sunday, Dec. 19, 2021. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)

The Srikanth-Lakshya tango

For K. Srikanth, the silver he secured at the BWF World Championship in December will feel like salvation. After four years without a significant title — the last being 2017 French Open — the former World No. 1, battling poor form and fitness, became the first Indian male to earn a silver medal at the world championship. Not to be left behind, the young Lakshya Sen, long touted to be the next big thing in Indian badminton, made good on his promise by taking the bronze. The semifinal between Srikanth and Lakshya, which the former edged in three games, will remain fresh for long, both for the quality of play and the warm embrace at the net. A flash in the pan or a sign of things to come, time will tell.