It is said sport is popular because it gives us glimpses of perfection. A Virat Kohli cover driving a ball on the rise, a forehand crosscourt smash by PV Sindhu or Kidambi Srikkanth, bodies bent like performing dolphins in the air or a lofted ondrive by Harmanpreet Kaur sailing over the ropes. Spectacular passages of play like that in which Indian sportsmen were the dramatis personae came in profusion to bring the year 2017 within touching distance of perfection.
What would 2018 hold in store for India in sport? The crystal ball reveals the collective will be closer to perfection than in 2017. In fact, the coming year will be the most satisfying for Indian sport. There will be medals galore in the multi-discipline Commonwealth Games (April 4 to 13) on the Gold Coast near Brisbane. As a sporting nation, India has taken a more of a shy approach to these games ever since finishing second in 2010 as the host. A slip to fifth in 2014 might be an aberration and could be corrected as our sportsmen have progressed considerably in the last four years.
There will be more golds in the Asian Games (August 18 to September 2) in Jakarta and Palembang in Indonesia. There may be some heartaches too as the competition gets stiffer in each Games with China’s exploding ambitions and other nations paying far more attention these days. The true test will be the Asian Games more than the Commonwealth but in a drug-free year in 2017 Indian track & field stars have shown far greater promise that talent will translate into performance, and without the need to cheat.
A clutch of medals in individual efforts will continue to be the Indian way with the promise that it may be a little different this time what with the form of the hockey teams – men and women – who had a great year in 2017 with victories in the Asia Cup. The signs that Indians have adapted well to the modern, fast-paced game and quick-passing tactics promise even better results in the future and team medals in the Asian Games will boost the tally while propelling India closer to the biggest sporting powers in the region.
In sport, as in life, the slip between the cup and the lip may be minuscule, and excruciatingly so. What stood between perfection and the national cricket teams – men and women – was a bad day in the final. Take away the final from Kohli’s men, who lost control of Team India’s most important game of the year after outing the Pakistanis in, and a few blips here and there and you see the picture of a perfect year. It was in 2017 that India won a ninth successive Test series and an eighth consecutive bilateral ODI series.
The year 2018 will be a litmus test and if India wins in South Africa it would be breaking a jinx. The feeling is gathering strength that this could be Team India’s year in South Africa as a set of quicks will be bolstering India’s chances in bowler-friendly conditions. A tour of England will be challenging too and Indian batsmen can hope to truly shine in an English summer filled with runs. Kohli may be the one most tested in English conditions but one could stick his neck out and say the skipper is certain to play a couple of long innings in the Test series.
In the past a near clichetic rationale for India and Indians’ performances in sport used to be that they lacked the ‘killer instinct’. This used to be repeated ad nauseam at every opportunity in sporting circles and debates on Indians in sport. That seemed to have changed over time in proportion to the Indian economy coming of age and growing. The sportsmen’s aspirations too seemed to grow along with India’s perceived place among the nations of the world. This became particularly evident in the first decade of the new millennium when not only were the Indian cricketers more assertive in their body language and their behaviour on the field but also in sportspeople who in various disciplines were beginning to show the prowess to come through as winners.
The march of the badminton players was the real highlight of 2017. The progress that Kidambi Srikanth made was indeed the most noticeable feature of the year. A total endorsement of badminton as the sport that propelled India into the super league of sporting nations outside the cricket arenas would come if Srikanth or PV Sindhu goes on to win the world championship in 2018. Srikanth is the best bet as the Gopichand protégé climbed giddy heights in 2017, winning three Super Series Finals in a row and four titles in all, which represent unprecedented success for any individual Indian sportsman.
The phenomenal consistency marked him out as the sportsman of the year although his stumble in the world championships quarter final where he succumbed to South Korea’s Son Wan-ho once again stressed the point that perfection is hard to achieve even for the most gifted of athletes. Sindhu had a great year too although she lost the world championship final to Japan’s Nozomi Okuhara. She had her revenge soon in Korea, but again finished second in the Dubai Super Series Final, fighting all the way though. The coming year should be the one in which they will scale the ultimate peaks in their sport.
It must, however, be considered remarkable that in a sport like badminton demanding extreme fitness, Indians should be in the running even as sport–loving Indians have begun believing that their sportspeople can win at the highest international level. In fact, Srikanth and Sai Praneeth created history when they became the first ever Indians to be featured against each other in a Super Series Finals, in Singapore. Sai Praneeth, Srikanth’s stablemate from the renowned Gopichand academy, prevailed that day. Sport academies have melded the latest training and skill set building techniques, which is a clear reason why Indian sportspeople have come this far after decades in which they occasionally shone like a flashing meteor. And 2018 will be the year in which they will deliver.