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Good, bad and the greatest

India’s six Olympic medals set the trend for the future, offset by the cricket team’s utter failure this year
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First Published: Wed, Dec 26 2012. 09 55 PM IST
Badminton player Saina Nehwal at the London Olympics in August. Photo: Getty Images
Badminton player Saina Nehwal at the London Olympics in August. Photo: Getty Images
There was much to cheer as well as lament about Indian sport in the year gone by. The steep fall in stock of Indian cricket from the heady highs of 2011 was obviously the biggest regret, but this was counter-balanced by the six medals won at the London Olympics—an unprecedented achievement which holds out great promise for the future.
Unlike in Beijing four years ago, there were no gold medals this time. But after a sluggish start, the Indian contingent rallied strongly in the second half of the Games to double the tally from three medals in the previous Olympics.
A more vigorous policy—abetted by societal awakening to the value and purpose of sport—is needed to make India a sporting nation. This is hardly a novel suggestion. The rise to eminence of countries like China and South Korea shows there is no other way for a developing country. The grotesque shenanigans within the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) and its affiliated federations, which led to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) suspending the national body towards the end of the year, would seem to work against this.
Yet, there were encouraging signs of growth in sports participation at the grass roots and desire in achievement at the higher levels. There are more children playing sport today than ever before—though nowhere quite as much as the population would suggest—and this is translating into medals and other accolades at the highest level.
The significant story of the Olympics was the success of Mary Kom and Saina Nehwal, which also set out a direction. Their bronze medals suggest two things that must be kept in focus in planning India’s sports future.
One, it is imperative to encourage large-scale participation by women and second (to be read along with other success stories at the Olympics), the medals at the Olympics and other such events must be targeted from specific disciplines. The argument about getting more women into sports is simplistic: If you keep half the population out, you halve the potential for medals. The argument in favour of specific disciplines is driven by experience: There are certain disciplines—shooting, badminton, wrestling, boxing, archery, etc.—which seem to suit Indian physique and temperament, so why not exploit this rather than chase shadows?
Conventional pursuits like hockey and tennis ended up being disastrous. The low standard of
Indian hockey was shown up badly again at the Olympics while tennis became prey to unpalatable ego clashes between ageing superstars. Worse, there seems to be no bench strength to make good in the short term.
Coming to the sport that we are obsessed with the most, the slump in cricket was steep and startling. Where everything seemed to be going right till the middle of 2011, things started taking a bad turn from the tour of England and have gone worse with almost every outing subsequently.
There was the 2-0 Test win over New Zealand at the start of this season. But against a weak side in conditions that were bound to make the Kiwis flounder, this victory was at best pyrrhic and not
reflective of the hollowness that had been building up over the previous 12 months.
How badly India had slumped in just over a year was evident in the ICC Test rankings—No. 1 to No. 5 from the previous year—but may still not tell the real story. The defeat to England at home is a warning that there is a malaise setting in, which must be addressed immediately if the situation is not to worsen. The string of failures took a heavy toll not just of the team and the reputation of Indian cricket, but also finished a few careers and left some in tatters. Rahul Dravid and V.V.S. Laxman quit the game, the latter unhappily.
Skipper M.S. Dhoni, who could do no wrong for the first four years of his captaincy, could do nothing right in the fifth. A spate of defeats, poor personal form and rumours of dressing room bickering left him perhaps the most vulnerable player in the team. He is still holding on to the captaincy, but only just.
Perhaps the most pathos-driven story was of Sachin Tendulkar, India’s greatest cricketer. His form, which started waning from the 2011 World Cup, hit a trough by the end of 2012 with dismal performances even against New Zealand and England at home. The bright spot for him was reaching his 100th century—an incredible landmark by any yardstick—but this came against lowly Bangladesh in the Asia Cup in March and in a match which India went on to lose. The massive support that Tendulkar had enjoyed all through his remarkable 23-year-career suddenly started showing sceptics and cynics.
Towards the end of the year, Tendulkar abruptly announced his retirement from ODIs, leading to sundry speculations about what had caused this as well as his future. All theories distilled, what emerges is that a great career—the most engaging in the past five to six decades—is drawing to a close.
But in the heartache and disappointment, there were moments of cheer. Virat Kohli has revealed himself to be a talented and competitive cricketer who can not only score runs, but has leadership qualities too. Cheteshwar Pujara’s splurge of runs against England marked him out as a major batting hope; someone who can possibly fill the void created by the departure of Dravid and Laxman.
The bowling looks thin, what with the futures of Zaheer Khan and Harbhajan Singh uncertain. But for all the criticism heaped on them in the series against England, R. Ashwin and Pragyan Ojha have shown decent skill given their relative inexperience.
The team is clearly in transition, but there is talent to make this period less gloomy than imagined, provided, of course, the handling of the sport is judicious and clearly result- rather than commerce- driven and pandering to stars.
The biggest learning in 2012 is surely that being the richest cricketing country does not necessarily make India the best.
Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters.
Write to Ayaz at beyondboundaries@livemint.com
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First Published: Wed, Dec 26 2012. 09 55 PM IST