Young India’s rising sports stars

Sportstar profiles 18 sparkling stars of 2018, all aged 20 or below, who will shine even brighter in the years to come.

More than seven decades of self-rule have enabled us to take giant strides as a nation as India — the world’s largest democracy — jostles for its legitimate place in the social, economic and political network of the hyper-reactive world of today.

Two of the world’s biggest technological conglomerates are headed by Indians, our scientists are carrying out missions to outer space at a fraction of the cost of what the superpowers spend, and we boast of the sixth largest economy in the world. But not all is hale and hearty, and despite our advances in some rather important markers, an area where our lack of success rankles is international sporting meets.

A nation with a population of 1.34 billion has won only 23 medals in 18 Summer Olympics since 1947 and is yet to qualify for the football World Cup. Three cricket world crowns — including the 2007 T20 World Cup — have come our way, but the sport has only 12 permanent Test-playing members. Our wins have been sporadic and our young talents have always struggled to make the leap to the senior circuits. We have won 23 medals in three Summer Youth Olympics, produced junior Wimbledon singles champions, but laurels at the highest level have been few and far between.

“To use the past to justify the present is bad enough — but it’s just as bad to use the present to justify the past,” Amitav Ghosh writes in The Glass Palace. Breaking away from the past, a younger India — 600 million people, more than half of India’s population, are under 25 years old — is flexing its muscle to secure the country’s entry into the superpower realm, and our athletes too are breaking the mould and sparkling on the highest stage.

The year 2018 saw a young Neeraj Chopra win the gold medal in the javelin throw at both the Commonwealth and the Asian Games, and an even younger Manu Bhaker secure four gold medals — including the CWG gold — in the 10m air pistol. Saurabh Chaudhary, 16, announced his arrival on the international stage with an Asian Games gold medal, beating the world and Olympic champion on the way and later added the world junior and Youth Olympics titles.

Then there’s Hima Das, a fast and sure-footed runner from Assam, who became the first Indian to win a Junior World Championships gold medal and found further glory at the Asian Games. M. Sreeshankar, crooning A. R. Rahman numbers, is easing his way to go past the 8.4m mark in 2019 as he readies to take a gargantuan leap for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics in the long jump.

The flashy Prithvi Shaw, with a heart of steel, took the cricketing world by storm with a century on debut against the West Indies, while his city-mate, Jemimah Rodrigues, only 18, continues to score heavily for India Eves — and wants to represent India in hockey, too!

There are many more in Yash Fadte, Aditi Ashok, Mehuli Ghosh, Lakshya Sen, Dipsan Tirkey, Srihari Nataraj, Sakshi Chaudhary, Manav Thakkar, Jeremy Lalrinnunga and, of course, the youngest of the group, R. Praggnanandhaa, already a Grand Master in chess at 13.

These youngsters, all 20 or below, are our 18 sparkling stars of 2018, who will shine even brighter in the years to come. Neeraj, only 21, misses out by a whisker, but he, too, will achieve much and more to make India proud.

Here’s wishing you all — especially our young champions — a happy and fruitful 2019!