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2016: The year of the little big bangs

Uthra Ganesan | Updated on January 16, 2018 Published on December 30, 2016
Catch them young: Indian hockey finally had a genuine world champion side, a group of 18 youngsters who steamrolled every other team in their way—Spain, Australia, England, Canada, Belgium and South Africa. Photo: Rajeev Bhatt

Catch them young: Indian hockey finally had a genuine world champion side, a group of 18 youngsters who steamrolled every other team in their way—Spain, Australia, England, Canada, Belgium and South Africa. Photo: Rajeev Bhatt   -  The Hindu

Leading ladies: T20 captain Harmanpreet Kaur (above) and batting sensation Smriti Mandhana were signed up for the Australian T20 league. Photo: G P Sampath Kumar

Leading ladies: T20 captain Harmanpreet Kaur (above) and batting sensation Smriti Mandhana were signed up for the Australian T20 league. Photo: G P Sampath Kumar   -  The Hindu

Hold court: With Pullela Gopichand firmly in her corner, there was no stopping PV Sindhu at the Rio Games. Photo: Nagara Gopal

Hold court: With Pullela Gopichand firmly in her corner, there was no stopping PV Sindhu at the Rio Games. Photo: Nagara Gopal   -  The Hindu

The shadow of Indian cricket has only grown in the last12 months. So has the list of success stories, both big and small, for other sports

It started with football and ended with hockey. In between there was cricket, lots of it, and of course the grandest arena of them all, the Olympics, which finally brought Indian sportswomen into the spotlight like never before. The year 2016 may well go down as one that saw Indian sports enjoy one of its best outings on the field, with some added bonuses off it too. It was a year to celebrate the spirit of sports in the country and move ahead of being the one-sport nation that it is often ridiculed to be.

Football

Winning its seventh SAFF (South Asian Football Federation) Championship, the Indian men’s football team stamped its domination over the region on the third day of the year. That too at the spiritual home of Indian football — Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. This victory set the tone for the remaining 362 days, which included Bengaluru FC creating history by becoming the first Indian club ever to reach the final of the AFC (Asian Football Confederation) Cup, arguably the most prestigious of club competitions in the continent, in November. That one of the teams that fell by the wayside was defending champion Johor Darul Ta’zim from Malaysia made it sweeter.

Hockey

On a different turf, Indian hockey took giant, rapid strides to bridge the gap with top-ranked teams and reclaim lost glory — on tough, muscular shoulders built with sweat, grit and blood and devoid of the dreamy romance of ‘what used to be’. The sport may have slid on the popularity charts and ceded space to cricket, but it still remains an emotional hook that tugs every time the national team raises hopes. For the first time in a long, long time, however, the hopes were accompanied by solid results on ground.

There was also the historic maiden silver at the elite Champions Trophy, of course. The best before this had been a bronze almost three decades back. It was a loss in the final – to Australia, after a controversial shootout – that was celebrated by every one except the players. “We are not happy, we deserved gold. You never win a silver, you only lose gold,” an angry, upset captain PR Sreejesh said after the match.

It was a new team out there, one that believed in itself and was unwilling to settle for anything less than the best.

It was followed by a less-than-expected outing at Rio, but anyone who saw the team in action came away impressed. After all, the team had finished last four years ago, with some mediocre performances. It finished eighth in Rio but the game on field was a class apart. Being the only Asian team at Olympics meant India now had to reassert itself as the best in the continent and that chance came at the Asian Champions Trophy (ACT), with India wresting back the title it won in 2011. The women, who are often relegated to secondary position in the sport despite its oh-so-glorious history, went to Rio on merit for the first time ever. They went as equals and came back wiser, using the wisdom to good effect in thrashing China for their maiden ACT title. For the first time ever, Indian hockey had brought home both the men’s and women’s ACT.

The icing on the cake, however, was the title triumph at the Junior World Cup. Indian hockey finally had a genuine world champion side, a group of 18 youngsters who steamrolled every other team in their way — Spain, Australia, England, Canada, Belgium, South Africa. It was after ages that an Indian hockey team displayed the kind of belief, talent and swagger that forced you to tag it ‘favourite’. And lived up to the tag.

Olympics

In a way, that change in mindset — from satisfaction with mere participation to going all out for victory in style — would perhaps be the biggest takeaway for Indian sports in a year that saw PV Sindhu break the Chinese ranks and slay other higher-ranked nemeses, one after the other, for her silver at the Rio Games. It was the same stubborn self-confidence that saw Sakshi Malik win four bouts in a day to win bronze, including a stunning take-down in the final medal round that saw her claw back from being 0-5 down to win 8-5, scoring the last three points in the final eight seconds.

The 24-year-old from the heartland of patriarchy in India — Haryana — had fought perception, prejudice and patriarchy to reach the biggest stage and she wasn’t going to let something as trifling as a five-point deficit mess with her plans. Just like Sindhu wasn’t going to stay in the shadow of her more illustrious senior Saina Nehwal any longer. She had the skills, all she needed to develop was the spirit to sear her opponents. With Pullela Gopichand firmly in her corner, giving her everything he never had even as the best Indian player of his generation, there was no stopping Sindhu.

Cricket

And then the man who made 2016 his own: Virat Kohli. The man who could do no wrong, the youngster who is already being hailed as the best of his generation and, at 28, one of the legends of the game, the style icon who struts around both on and off field, the man-boy given the responsibility to lead Indian cricket for the next few years — Kohli symbolised the new Indian sportsman like none other.

He steered India to the semi-final of the World T20, and when he finally faltered, so did India’s hopes. Under Kohli, India became the world’s top-ranked Test side, whitewashing opponents both at home and away. The world domination began against West Indies, winning the four-Test series 2-0. It continued at home, first New Zealand (3-0) and then England (4-0) being massacred.

The shorter formats were no different. Even though Kohli is yet to take charge of the team in the shorter versions of the game, he remained the fulcrum of the team. MS Dhoni did the job the way only he can — ruthlessly. He led a team of wannabes and had-beens to Zimbabwe and came back with series win in both the one-day internationals and the T20s. He struggled but managed to drag the team over the finish line against New Zealand at home. The women in flannels won the Asia Cup and sent two of their own — Harmanpreet Kaur and Smriti Mandhana — as the first Indians in a foreign T20 league (the Big Bash in Australia).

Indian cricket let slip a chance to become World Champions early in the year. Indian hockey managed to do so at the end of 2016. There may be miles to go, but 2016 did energise the tiny steps that the rest of Indian sporting fraternity has taken. That in itself calls for a celebration.

Published on December 30, 2016
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