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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.