PARTAB RAMCHAND | 24 DECEMBER, 2018
2018 - Another Eventful Year for Indian Sport
Our sports editor’s roundup of the year’s peaks and troughs
If 2017 was eventful for Indian sport in terms of results and achievements, 2018 was even more so.
However abysmal India’s record in the Olympics may be, the competitors have always performed admirably when it comes to the next rung on the international ladder - the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games. Almost inevitably the focus was on these events, and this year there was plenty to cheer, for Indian sportsmen and women performed admirably at both.
At the Commonwealth Games held in April in Australia’s Gold Coast, India finished with a tally of 66 medals - 26 gold, 20 silver and 20 bronze. The haul saw India finish third in the final medals tally, behind only hosts Australia and England, and ahead of such Commonwealth powerhouses as New Zealand and Canada.
At the previous Games in Glasgow in 2014 India had won 64 medals - 15 gold, 30 silver and 19 bronze.
The competition at the Asian Games is tougher in many ways, but in Jakarta last August India’s representatives kept the country’s flag flying high. One expected an impressive showing and it must be said the Indian contingent performed well above expectations.
Indeed even the most optimistic Indian sports follower could not have bargained for what happened - a tally of 69 medals, with 15 gold, 24 silver and 30 bronze - and the eighth place overall.
India peaked at the Asian Games in Guangzhou in 2010 when it won a total of 65 medals. Four years ago it won 57 medals at Incheon.
In the country’s most popular sport, cricket, India’s players held their own against the competition - in men’s cricket India were ranked No 1 in Tests at year’s end, and No 2 in ODIs. Virat Kohli’s batting touched a new peak and he was ranked as the best in the contemporary game. Sure there were reverses in South Africa and England, but at home India were as usual unbeatable. The Asia Cup triumph and the victory in the first Test in Australia gave fans much reason to celebrate.
Women’s cricket - which captured the imagination of the Indian public when the Indian team made the final of the World Cup in 2017 - continued to dominate the headlines, though for reasons right and wrong. The team did well to reach the semifinals of the T-20 World Cup in the Caribbean, only to falter at this stage and lose to England. Captain Harmanpreet Kaur was the star of the competition and was selected to captain the world team at the end of it all, thanks in the main to an electrifying century in the league game against New Zealand.
Unfortunately the campaign ended on a bitter note. Mithali Raj, the leading run getter in women’s cricket, was dropped for the semifinal despite getting half centuries in her two previous games. The team’s subsequent loss led to a heated debate regarding the decision.
What followed was worse. Kaur said the decision was taken in the interests of the team and she had no regrets. Raj playing the martyr pointed to her record in her defence - and here the scenario became depressing with team coach Ramesh Powar, the former Indian off spinner, making personal charges against Raj, which the player refuted and then hit back.
The controversy refused to die down even though it was announced that Powar’s contract would not be renewed and a new coach would be appointed. But then Kaur and vice captain Smriti Mandhana queered the pitch by writing to the BCCI that they wanted Powar to continue. And so the dreary soap opera continues.
Badminton is another sport in which India has shown much progress in the last few years, and the rise was maintained with the leading players Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu again performing commendably in international competitions. The crowning glory was Sindhu’s winning the BWF World Tour finals for the first time, defeating Japan’s Nozomi Okuhara in the title clash and becoming the first Indian to achieve this feat.
Sindhu had lost to the Japanese player in last year’s epic final. She was ranked No 3 in the year-end rankings and Nehwal No 10. But what was even more heartening was the fact that the men did as well as the two women stars. Kidambi Srikanth in particular rose spectacularly in the rankings, finishing the year at No 3.
‘Wonder woman’ MC Mary Kom gave India another reason to celebrate during the year. The 36-year-old mother of three scaled a new high by winning her sixth gold medal at the World Boxing Championships in New Delhi. That makes it seven in all for Kom, including her silver medal at the 2001 Championship. She won her first gold in 2002 and 16 years later was at it again. Not wishing to rest on her laurels Kom now has her sights set on the one feat that eludes her still - an Olympic gold which she hopes to achieve in Tokyo in 2020. She did win a bronze medal at the 2012 Olympics but now has her sights trained much higher…
Tennis another popular sport in the country was hardly in the headlines. The two top players at the start of the year, Yuki Bhambri and Ramkumar Ramanathan, slid down the ATP rankings - the former out of the top 100. Prajnesh Gunneswaran however made a mark during the year. The 29-year-old from Chennai won two ATP Challenger titles and also won the bronze medal in the singles event at the Asian Games. He started 2018 ranked at 243 but by year’s end he was at 104 in the ATP rankings and the highest rated Indian player. In the Davis Cup India again qualified for the World Group playoff and will meet Italy early next year.
Viswanathan Anand finished the year among the top ten of the FIDE rankings - for the 27th straight year. Anand, now 49, finally made the transition from being the ‘lightning kid’ of the 90s to the elder statesman of international chess. But the hunger for success very much remains, and he is still regarded as among the toughest opponents in the game of 64 squares. The five-time world champion currently ranked No 8 is still held in high esteem the world over.
Winning the World Rapid Championship in Riyadh towards the end of 2017 and finishing third in the World Blitz Championship at the same venue a few days later put Anand in the right frame of mind for 2018. In classical play he slipped slightly, going down to younger opponents, but in rapid and blitz it was his turn to teach the next generation of players a few tricks. Winning the Tal Memorial Rapid Tournament in Moscow and the Tata Steel India Rapid and Blitz Tournament in Kolkata, Anand showed he had lost none of his skill in getting into winning positions and then closing out the game. His brilliance continues to inspire the youngsters in the country and at the end of the year the number of GMs in the country had risen to 57.
In golf Shubhankar Sharma emerged as the brightest star. Following a groundbreaking year of achievements he became the youngest Indian to clinch the Asian Tour Order of Merit in 2018. The 22-year-old professional, riding on his breakthrough victory in the Joburg Open in December 2017 continued his good form early in 2018 by winning the Maybank Championship in Malaysia. Sharma had a superb final round of 62 to finish two strokes ahead of Jorge Campillo of Spain. The win lifted him into the world top 100 for the first time.
Sharma became the fifth and youngest Indian to win the Asian Tour Order of Merit. He joins Jyoti Randhawa (2002), Arjun Atwal (2003), Jeev Milkha Singh (2006 and 2008) and Anirban Lahiri (2015). None of the previous Indian winners of the Asian Tour Order of Merit were below 30 when they reached the top. Sharma ended the year as Asian Tour’s No 1 and went on to achieve his career-best world ranking of 64 by finishing tied ninth on his WGC debut in Mexico, and then tying for seventh place at the Hero Indian Open.
Sharma went on to play all four Majors, as he was invited by the Augusta National Golf Club, and qualified for other three Majors, and he also played all four WGC events. He topped the race for the European Tour's Rookie of Year and won the Sir Harry Cotton Award. During the year, he was also honoured with the Arjuna Award.
The big event for Indian hockey came towards the end of the year, when the World Cup was held in Bhubaneshwar. Hopes floated that with the home advantage, fifth ranked India would rewrite history and win the mega event, which they have done just once, in Kuala Lumpur in 1975. The team did well in the group stage topping it with two wins and a draw, but their challenge ended in the quarterfinal when they went down 1-2 to fourth ranked Netherlands.