Scepticism all round

Krishna Poonia on way to winning the discus throw event in the Asian Grand Prix at the Jawaharalal Nehru Stadium in Chennai.-R. RAGU

An assessment of Indian athletics following the Asian Grand Prix and Indian Grand Prix series. By K. P. Mohan.

There is always a flurry of activity and a clutch of top-level performances to talk of in Indian athletics whenever a ‘big-meet' year comes along. From an Indian perspective, there are in fact two major championships this year, the Commonwealth Games at home in October and the Asian Games in Guangzhou that will follow a month later.

Aiming high should come naturally to any sportsperson. Our athletes should be no exceptions. A Commonwealth Games medal is the immediate target for any Indian athlete, no matter how elusive it looks. And then an Asian Games medal, possibly a gold.

But are there athletes in our midst who can win medals in the Commonwealth Games and then the Asian Games?

The last time in the Melbourne CWG, India had two silver medals, with the women's 4x400m relay team taking the second place after England was disqualified and Jamaica dropped the baton. Discus thrower Seema Antil took the other silver. In the Doha Asian Games, India had one gold (women's 4x400m), five silver and four bronze medals.

We can attempt to assess Indian athletes on the current scene on the strength of their performances in the recent Asian Grand Prix and Indian GP series that were held in Pune, Bangalore and Chennai. If Pune suggested that our athletes were on the right track, Bangalore put a few of them on a pedestal, almost close to world standards.

The crash, however, came all too quickly, in Chennai; all in a matter of nine days. Some observers say this was predictable.

This has been the bane of Indian athletics; erratic performances for which customary excuses are trotted out, like “too early in the season” or “yet to do speedwork” or they are put down to niggling injuries or late start to training.

‘Highs' and ‘lows' are part of an international athlete's career. In the recent Indian context, however, the ‘lows' come mostly at major international competitions. Thus there is scepticism all round as the country's athletes build up their tempo towards the twin targets for the year.

Women's discus figures prominently in the Indian calculations when we assess medal chances in the Commonwealth Games. Krishna Poonia is the woman in form. It was easy for her to make a clean sweep of the titles in the Asian GP series since the Chinese were absent and the lone foreign entry happened to be Wan Lay Chi of Singapore whose personal best of 48.47m will not figure in the top-50 chart in the continent.

The man who has hit the headlines regularly this season has been Renjith Maheswary, the winner of the triple jump event.-K. MURALI KUMAR

Poonia's performance has to be assessed against where she stands in the Commonwealth. Her three marks, 59.51 (Pune), 61.64 (Bangalore) and 59.94 (Chennai), showed the consistency she has attained while training under former Olympic champion Mac Wilkins in Portland, U.S.

Her two career-best throws of over 63 metres, recorded on American soil, including her personal best of 63.69m at Chula Vista, California, U.S., in April this year, should, however, be considered as those assisted by “favourable winds”. On current form she is in the range of 60-62 metres.

Poonia will have World champion Dani Samuels (personal best 65.84 in February this year) for company in the CWG unless the 22-year-old Aussie decides to stay home because of security concerns. Other top contenders could be Elizna Naude of South Africa, a 64-metre-plus thrower, and former World champion Betrice Faumuina of New Zealand (season best 61.11m).

The Chinese invariably dominate in the Asian arena. Song Aimin and Li Yanfeng or Ma Xuejun should be there in the Guangzhou Asian Games to assert their supremacy. Last year in Guangzhou, in the Asian championships, Poonia had taken the bronze (59.84) behind Song Aimin (63.90) and Ma Xuejun (63.63).

Poonia, like her team-mates, Harwant Kaur and Seema Antil, has not shown the kind of consistency that fetches dividends at the highest level.

Antil has not crossed 60 metres since taking the silver medal in the last Commonwealth Games in Melbourne in March, 2006. So far this season she has thrown 57.21 (Ranchi), 53.05 (Kochi), 59.51 (Pune), 58.81 (Bangalore) and 55.60 (Chennai). This is hardly inspiring, to put it mildly.

Harwant has also not crossed 60 metres since registering 61.09m at the inter-State meet in Madurai in 2008 to qualify for the Beijing Olympics. She has, however, had a string of above-average marks in the Asian GP, 57.75, 59.67 and 59.36.

Will she be able to maintain this level till November?

The man who has hit the headlines regularly this season has been Renjith Maheswary. The triple jumper is having some sort of a revival. His 17.0m in Bangalore was his second best legal jump, behind his National record of 17.04m, set in Guwahati in 2007. Since 2007 he had not crossed 16.73.

He has been quoted as saying he was aiming for 17.50, maybe in time for the Commonwealth Games. If he is able to come close to that he could be among the medals in the games. From the 17.0 in Bangalore, Renjith, however slumped to 16.60 in Chennai, for the silver behind Chinese Wu Bo (16.73) indicating that the hype surrounding his early season form, after all , could be misplaced.

Significantly, Renjith's series in Chennai was: 15.90, 15.86, 16.16, 16.38, 15.80 and 16.60. That is a mediocre series for someone who had crossed 16.40 when he was 19 years old. The 24-year-old Kerala jumper's career graph has been nothing short of phenomenal, but there have been frustrating troughs, too.

P. T. Usha with her protege Tintu Luka. Luka has been one of the brightest track prospects in recent years.-R. RAGU

Barring the Asian championships in Amman in 2007, Renjith's big-championship performances have been ordinary. He had a 16.38 (26th) in the qualification round of the Osaka World Championships in 2007; 15.77 (35th) in the prelims of the Beijing Olympics and 16.48 (4th) in the final of last year's Asian championships in Guangzhou.

His 17.0 puts him behind three other Commonwealth athletes in the year's lists, World champion and Beijing Olympics silver medallist Phillips Idowu of Britain (17.48) being at the top. Last year Renjith's 16.73 placed him 10th in the Commonwealth list. Apart from Idowu, the list included Beijing Olympics bronze medallist Leevan Sands of the Bahamas. Now, you know how tough it is going to be for Renjith to aim for a medal in the Commonwealth Games.

Another youngster who has shown steady improvement has been shot putter Om Prakash Singh. But the 23-year-old Asian champion, like Renjith, also hit a downward curve at the end of the Asian GP circuit, reaching just 18.45 for the silver behind Zhang Jun of China (18.64). The Chinese had won in Pune also, but Om Prakash came up with an impressive 19.80, his season best, in Bangalore to reverse the placings.

The Chennai marks made depressing reading for the other Indian shot putters also, all of them in seemingly good nick earlier in the season, if not in the series itself. Thus we had Navpreet Singh, coming back after a two-year break, tossing the iron ball to 17.80 in Chennai after having recorded 18.58 in Bangalore.

Satyendra Kumar Singh, who had a 19.17 for the Asian Indoor title in February last, came down to 17.57 in the Open National in Kochi and 17.06 in Chennai where he was recovering from an injury. The coaches will tell you their wards would come good just in time. They may yet, with the right kind of build up, possibly in a European country.

Om Prakash is lying fifth among Commonwealth athletes with his 19.80 in this year's lists; he was ninth last year (20.02) when Dorian Scott of Jamaica had topped with 21.09. Currently, Dylan Armstrong (Canada) is the No. 1 among Commonwealth athletes at 21.58m.

Shot-putter Om Prakash Singh...an impressive 19.80, his season best, in Bangalore.-A.M. FARUQUI

Men's javelin was also supposed to be a medal event for Indians at the CWG. The top three at the Open National (Jagmohan Singh, Vipin Kasana and Anuj Kumar) skipped the Indian GP series. Their disappearance from a circuit specifically organised for those who might not have had an opportunity to compete in the Asian GP remained a mystery.

Kashinath Naik, just 68.68m in Kochi, picked up considerably through the GP, 73.18, 71.40 and 75.23. Seven Commonwealth athletes were better than Naik last year when he threw a personal best 77.33. Eight have done better than his Chennai mark this season.

With their feats in Bangalore, the long jumpers, both male and female, caused quite a sensation in the athletics circles. Hari Krishna, rather new at this level, led the surprise packet with a PB of 7.92. Maha Singh had 7.87 and Ankit Sharma, who rose to fame with his 7.73 gold medal show in the Kochi Open, had 7.64. In Chennai Hari Krishna had 7.54, Maha 7.50 and Sharma 7.39.

Men's long-jumping standards in the Commonwealth are too high for the Indians to think about a medal. Three of the current top-four in the world, all 8.30m and above (Jamaican Alain Bailey and Australians Chris Noffke and Fabrice Lapierre) are from the Commonwealth.

More dramatic than the men has been the progress made by woman long jumpers, but they too fell sharply in Chennai. Is there a pattern emerging in jumps and throws?

M. A. Prajusha jumped a stunning 6.55m to take the gold in Bangalore, becoming in the process, the third best Indian jumper behind Anju George, who recently became the mother of a baby boy and who will continue to miss the rest of the season, and J. J. Shobha.

M. A. Prajusha jumped a stunning 6.55m to take the long jump gold in Bangalore.-K. MURALI KUMAR

Mayookha Johny (6.49), on a comeback after injury, and Reshmi Bose (6.46) also crossed their personal bests as for the first time three Indian women crossed 6.40 in one competition.

Reshmi beat her better-ranked rivals for the first time in Chennai with only 6.32 as Prajusha and Mayookha came down to 6.23 and 6.18 respectively.

Tintu Luka has been one of the brightest track prospects in recent years. P. T. Usha's protege was beaten by Kazakh Margarita Matsko in Pune and was then hospitalised in Bangalore due to food poisoning. She, however, gave a front-running treat to the Chennai fans while winning in 2:03.67.

Usha would do well to preserve Luka in such situations when she is obviously not cent per fit. With her 2:01.61 in the Kochi Open meet, Luka is currently (as on June 11) eighth among Commonwealth athletes, but is No. 1 among Asians.

There is still a long way to go for the season to end. Maintaining form will be the key. Sporadic bursts will be viewed with suspicion. Meticulous planning can fetch two ‘peaks' within a one-month span from October.