Is Indian sport coming of age?

The past few weeks have truly brought an amazing number of big sporting successes for India.

P. K. Ajith Kumar

Sania Mirza ... promises a bright future for Indian tennis. — Pic. K. RAMESH BABU-

INDIA'S under-18 football team scores a golden goal in Wales.

Sania Mirza serves an ace at Wimbledon. Magic returns to the Indian hockey sticks.

India's youth volleyball team serves its way almost to the top of the world.

Krishnan Sasikiran and other young chess champions of India consistently make winning moves abroad.

Bhaichung Bhutia and East Bengal kick off a revival of interest in football.

Anju Bobby George leaps to new distances overseas.

India's wrestlers grapple gold at Commonwealth meet.

Suddenly India looks something more than a sickeningly non-performing sporting nation. Suddenly the Indian sports fan has more to cheer about than he ever did. Suddenly there are rays of hope even for Indian sport.

And for once, it's not the cricketers who are bringing joy to Indian sport.

Anju George ... leaping to new distances. — Pic. VINO JOHN-

The past few weeks have truly brought an amazing number of big sporting successes for India. It looks too good to be true. India at the moment doesn't resemble a country obsessed with cricket and more cricket. Our dailies celebrate the victories of the Indian hockey teams overseas.

Dhanraj Pillay and Bhaichung Bhutia appear on television channels. We get regular updates on Anju Bobby George's training sessions and performances. It's almost as if we are in a multi-dimensional sporting nation like Australia.

But are our sports bodies, notoriously ineffective, and the Government, which believes the best it can do for the betterment of Indian sport is gifting the medal winners lakhs of rupees for meets like the Commonwealth Games and holding meaningless events like Afro-Asian Games, and the cricket-obsessed media, especially the electronic one, waking up? Not yet.

If there's a time for the federations, the Government, the media and the corporate houses to have a close look at what is happening in Indian sport and see if they could do anything to turn India into something more than a big market for television rights of cricket matches, it is now.

What India's unsung heroes, and heroines, have achieved these past few weeks against great odds should not go unrewarded or unnoticed. Every effort should be made to capitalise on their outstanding achievements. The significance of what the Indian youth volleyball team and East Bengal have done on foreign grounds could never be overstated.

Sania Mirza, Dhanraj Pillay and his boys, the Indian under-18 football team that stunned the world in Wales, and Sasikiran should be made to feel that they are heroes too, that they are at least as important as the India `A' cricket team.

How many people would have thought that the Indians would actually beat giants like Brazil, Poland and the Czech Republic in back-to-back matches and get within one step of being the World champion in Thailand?

Bhutia's boys and their coach Subhas Bhowmick at East Bengal deserve a pat too, and so does the much maligned Doordarshan. Its coverage may have been pedestrian, but we could at least watch live Bhutia scoring that lovely goal against BEC Tero Sasana of Thailand in the final of the ASEAN club football championship in Jakarta. So used to cheering for Brazil or Real Madrid on Ten Sports or Star Sports, it must have been a new feeling to the Indian football fan, watching his own countrymen celebrating a goal. He must've liked it.

Like the volleyball team's success in Thailand, East Bengal's victory was also unexpected. It was more stunning of the two in fact. Because India's current stature in football is similar to that of Bangladesh in cricket, and because the vol<147,2,1>leyball team had gone to Thailand after winning the Asian youth championship at home.

Bhutia showed why he was thought to be good enough to play in the English league, and his teammates showed plenty of skill and spirit, as they brushed aside challenges from fitter and stronger rivals.

There was no television coverage of India's younger footballers in Wales. So their triumph may not have looked as spectacular. But it was no less significant. Because these kids are young, if coach Stephen Constantine and the AIl India Football Federation can ensure that they are given ample opportunities and enough incentives in the coming years, this victory would assume even greater significance.

Sania, who made history when she won the junior doubles title at Wimbledon, is young enough too, to promise of a bright future for her and Indian tennis. Talking of youngsters in Indian tennis, we shouldn't forget the rapid strides Prakash Amritraj is making of late.

And Anju could very well peak in time for the Athens Olympics, where another pretty woman of Indian sport, shooter Anjali Bhagwat is also a medal prospect.

Former World champion Viswanathan Anand's stunning achievements inspired thousands of youngsters to take up chess across the country. Youngsters like Sasikiran, who is ranked No. 40 in the world, Koneru Humpy, the 2000 World junior champion, and Pendyala Harikrishna have already shown the world that there is more to Indian chess than Anand.

K.Sasikiran... consistently making winning moves abroad. — Pic. R.V. MOORTHY-

Abhinav Bindra, with a rifle in his hand, and Narain Karthikeyan, on the fast track of racing, are all young people with dreams in their eyes and ambition in their blood.

Instead of blaming cricket for every problem in Indian sport (like Suresh Kalmadi did during a television debate, anchored by Rajdeep Sardesai), it's high time we started finding solutions. And it should be done now, when the going is good.

To begin with, our sports federations need a drastic revamp. Let there be more Prakash Padukones in our sports bodies. Instead of politicians, or others with no background in sports, `serving' sports bodies as life-long presidents (the only people they serve are themselves), let there be people who know a thing or two about sport. Make the administrators accountable.

The All India Chess Federation is an example of how a sports body can achieve results. Its secretary P.T. Ummer Koya has been accused of being autocratic, but the man has the drive and a vision. His federation conducts tournaments round the year, and brings World and Asian championships to the country on a regular basis. It employs the world's best coaches, and it ensures the players get frequent international exposure.

And the result? India is fast becoming a superpower in world chess. Contrast that with the shoddy way most of our federations function. Remember East Bengal's plight after winning the ASEAN Cup; a muddy Salt Lake Stadium was its next venue, as the AIFF scheduled the Federation Cup during the monsoon.

Let the Government start spending its money on moulding athletes, and not just on rewarding them. That the Sports Authority of India can be imaginative has been proved by the Indian youth volleyball team.

And what's stopping the Government from lending a helping hand to P.T. Usha's athletic school?

Bhaichung Bhutia... kicking off a revival in Indian football — Pic. V.SREENIVASA MURTHY-

Let the Government make a sportsman's life a little easier. It's distressing to see Dhanraj Pillay disclose on National television that he gets just $ 20 as his allowance for the service he does to the country.

And why can't an effort be made by the federations to market their games? Sania Mirza, Dhanraj Pillay and Anjali Bhagwat are well known faces in India now, and they are attractive in their own ways. But how come we don't see them in any commercials?

The media shouldn't wait till our young sportsmen have become world champions. Why aren't we seeing, or reading more of India's young volleyball and football heroes?

Former Test cricketer Sanjay Manjrekar said on television that the cash-rich BCCI should adopt another sport — he suggested football — and part with some money. We don't know how the BCCI chief Jagmohan Dalmiya would respond to it.

Maybe what the BCCI could do is to stage some benefit matches and give the proceedings to needy, honest sports bodies. That way, the BCCI will get to keep its own money it earned.