Tuesday, January 19, 2010

It's not just cricket

(Also in the January 2010 edition of Man's World as part of the overall look at the highlights of the decade gone by)
A millennium ended, a new one swung by. In many ways, nothing changed in Indian sport. Cricket remains the big deal. Politicians continue to run (nay, rule) sports federations much as they run the country: ineffectually and indifferently. The National Sport continues to languish at the bottom of the foodchain. But, as if from nowhere, we found individuals who cut through these constants; they are the ones who made ‘change’ possible.

Abhinav Bindra
None more so than Abhinav Bindra. Possibly because his federation’s apathy didn’t matter to him – his affluence puts him above these petty obstacles. But more than anything else, it didn’t matter because he is super! He’d missed out in Athens 2004 as Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore set the benchmark – almost ‘up there’. So if Abhinav were to bring home a silver in Beijing 2008, it wouldn’t have counted for much. It had to be better or bust. And better it was. Gold! The first time anyone but the Indian hockey team had conquered the world in the Olympic Games. And even if his feat is emulated in years to come, Abhinav Bindra will remain the man who broke the glass ceiling. Speaking of glass ceilings, a couple of old men who know all about that were still out there rock-and-rolling.

Leander Paes & Mahesh Bhupathi
Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi. Admittedly, they didn’t do anything important together in the current decade except win the French Open doubles crown in 2001. But Leander has gone on to win six men’s doubles and seven mixed doubles Grand Slams since. While Bhupathi has won one men’s doubles and seven mixed doubles Slams. We can shake our heads and wonder about what could have been… Fact is, they split up. Fact also is that they made us happy more often than most others have. And, in a sense, they also paved the way for people like Sania Mirza, Yuki Bhambri and Somdev Devvarman to poke their heads out. Meanwhile, away from the glam-sports was a small, muscular and uncannily spirited young woman breaking new ground.

MC Marykom
Magnificent Mary – MC Marykom. A four-time 46-kilogram world champion in women’s boxing. A feat no one can stake claim to. And, would you believe it, Mary is not yet 30. This means that apart from being India’s longest-ruling world champion, Mary also has a shot at Olympic glory when women’s boxing is introduced in the 2012 Games.

Viswanathan Anand
Now, when a sportsperson receives the Khel Ratna award, you assume the person is closer to the end of his career than the beginning. Viswanathan Anand earned the accolade in 1992. In his case, the award was more a beginning than an end. Seventeen years since, Anand is the undisputed world champion. Still. A title he first assumed in 2000. He lost it in between, regained it in 2007 and has held it since then. Along the way, Anand became the first player in history to win the World Championship in the three different formats: knockout, tournament and match. Along the way, Anand has also been the undisputed world number one – twice. All in this decade; one decade after receiving the nation’s highest sports award.

Saina Nehwal
And on the way out, we must include the one person best-placed to become India’s next world champion – Saina Nehwal. Queen Saina has already made us sit up and take notice of her. First, when she reached the quarterfinals at the Beijing Olympics. Then, when she won the World Junior Championships last year. And in 2009, when she became the first Indian woman to win a Super Series title. Saina is just 19. Already sixth in the world, she is getting stronger and better. Who knows, number one might not be all that much to ask.