Youth revolution in Indian sport?

TO borrow the legendary singer Bob Dylan's famous words that will always be a part of the folklore of popular music, "the times, they are a-changin'" in Indian sport. And we are not referring to Sachin Tendulkar's net worth, which might put in the shade the gross domestic product of a small African country.

TO borrow the legendary singer Bob Dylan's famous words that will always be a part of the folklore of popular music, "the times, they are a-changin'" in Indian sport. And we are not referring to Sachin Tendulkar's net worth, which might put in the shade the gross domestic product of a small African country.

For decades now, critics and fans have lamented the fact that a country of so many people — over a billion now — has not been able to produce world class athletes and teams. And the moment Chinese sportsmen and women broke free from behind the bamboo curtain to display their might on the world stage, the continuing inability of Indian athletes to make an impression at international meets seemed so much more frustrating and morale-shattering.

But, if recent events are any indication, things are indeed changing. No, it is too soon yet to get to the roof top and shout about the glory of Indian sport, far too soon to believe that India would rank alongside the giants of modern sport such as the United States, Russia, Germany and China at the Olympic level.

Then again, surely, there is a discernible sense of optimism in the world of sport in India; and this is not only because Sourav Ganguly and his boys set out on a fascinating journey in South Africa, making their way to the World Cup finals 20 years after Kapil Dev came back home with the Cup that matters.

On the other hand, the sense of well being in Indian sport is triggered by the performances of men and women who are not quite as famous and feted as Tendulkar, Ganguly and Co. Rather more importantly, the optimism is a result of the fact that most of the notable accomplishments in recent times have come from youngsters.

Playing in the world junior volleyball championship for the first time, in Thailand, the Indian team surprised everyone, including those who worked with the boys all along, by not only making the final but also by its victories over some of the finest teams in the world, from countries where volleyball is almost as popular as cricket is in India.

It was a marvellous performance that was not only a pointer to the quality of young talent available in the sport in India but also to the fact that volleyball is one sport that has benefited considerably in recent times in this country because of a sound administration.

Much of what was accomplished by the team in Thailand has to do with the foresight shown by men who run volleyball in India. For, without long term planning and proper accent on youth, as well as scientific training, it might not have been possible for India to beat teams such as Iran, Brazil and the rest.

Perhaps the celebrations came a touch too soon, for the Indian side lost to Brazil without a fight in the final, not long after beating the same team earlier in the competition. But, then, if the Volleyball Federation of India can take advantage of the momentum, sunnier times may be around the corner for the senior side too.

As much as in volleyball, the performances of youngsters in other sports such as chess — where India is a giant now — wrestling, hockey, and not the least cricket and tennis, should offer cause for celebration.

As many as 13 members of the senior hockey team that did so well recently in Australia and Germany were part of the Indian team that won the junior World Cup in Hobart, Australia, two years ago. While the value of evergreen stars such as Dhanraj Pillay can never be under-estimated, the fact remains that the new found vigour in the team has to do with the young talent in the side.

The Gagan Ajit Singhs (hockey) and the Kamarajs (the young Tamilian who was named the "setter" of the championship in Thailand) may not get mobbed when they choose to eat out in Chennai or Delhi or Chandigarh but they are as much a part of the minor youth revolution that is taking place in Indian sport as Yuvraj Singh and Mohammed Kaif, celebrated members of the Indian cricket team who were part of the side that won the ICC under-19 World Cup in Sri Lanka a few years ago.

As for individual sports, chess, of course, is leading the way, thanks to the great revolution triggered by the rise and rise of Viswanathan Anand. The one other individual sport where India has traditionally made its presence felt at the international level, tennis, is not exactly in the pink of health. But the emergence of a Prakash Amritraj here — winner of three successive Futures events in India recently — and a Sania Mirza there may offer a sliver of hope.