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Beyond the pitch: A year of great hope for India

ByRutvick Mehta
Dec 31, 2022 06:08 PM IST

India is looking to the Asian Games to serve as a litmus test for athletes, a year ahead of the 2024 Paris Olympics and a year into the buoyancy around the Birmingham Commonwealth Games.

For the larger sporting world, 2022 was about plucking itself fully out of the shadows of the pandemic (unless, of course, one happened to be the unvaccinated Novak Djokovic). The multi-nation, multi-sport Birmingham Commonwealth Games (CWG) played out with no Covid restrictions. The FIFA World Cup in Qatar had fans pouring in from around the world. Finally, the stadiums were full again and sport was being played as it was meant to be played.

Beyond the pitch: A year of great hope for India
Beyond the pitch: A year of great hope for India

This year could be different, with significant ramifications for India.

The Asian Games, scheduled to be held in Hangzhou in September 2022, were postponed to September-October 2023, but there are now murmurs that the Games may not be held there, as China battles a deadly new wave of Covid-19 infections.

India is looking to the Asian Games to serve as a litmus test for athletes, a year ahead of the 2024 Paris Olympics and a year into the buoyancy around the Birmingham Commonwealth Games (we returned with 61 medals, the fourth-highest tally). A few Olympic quota spots could be up for grabs at the Asian Games. A few firsts could be in the making too. Here’s a look at possible firsts, potential stressors, and the great hopefuls.

The firsts

PV Sindhu, singles champion at the 2022 CWG, has yet to win gold at the Asian Games, in a singles or team event. This could change in 2023. Meanwhile, the doubles duo of Chirag Shetty and Satwiksairaj Rankireddy, India’s most successful male shuttler duo ever, will look to add an Asiad medal to their steadily growing list of accomplishments, which include gold at Birmingham and bronze at the Tokyo World Championships.

The stressers

The test for India’s wrestlers, weightlifters and paddlers will be vital, as these sports see much stiffer competition at the Asian Games than at CWG. Given that there are World Championships scheduled in most of these sports this year too, some of which will play a key role in who qualifies for Paris, this is set to be a busy season and a tricky period for hopefuls such as weightlifter Mirabai Chanu, wrestlers Bajrang Punia and Vinesh Phogat and boxer Nikhat Zareen.

Athletes usually have spaced-out periodisation schedules within the Olympic cycle. To have the postponed Asian Games just a year before the Olympics is a rare challenge. Zareen, the 2022 world champion, will also be out to defend her crown on home turf, with the 2023 IBA Women’s World Boxing Championships scheduled to be held in New Delhi in March.

India’s shooters will have the opposite challenge. They return to the international arena after sitting out CWG (as an optional sport, shooting was excluded from the 2022 Commonwealth Games on the grounds that Birmingham didn’t have the necessary facilities).

The great hopefuls

An Asian Games triumph would secure a 2024 Olympics berth in hockey, an outcome both the Indian teams will aim for. Before that, the men kick-start the year with the FIH World Cup in January in Bhubaneswar and Rourkela.

As hosts, the hope will be for India to go further than the quarter-final finish in the previous edition in 2018 (also held at home), particularly given the team’s upward trajectory since the Tokyo Olympics bronze and CWG silver.

Onward and upward since his Tokyo gold is javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra. He has since added a World Championships silver and Diamond League gold to his tally, in 2022, both also firsts for India. Notable goals for the 25-year-old this year include the World Championships in Budapest in August; the Asian Games, where he is the defending champion; and the much-anticipated breaching of the 90-metre mark, whenever that happens.

The GOAT debate

What is certain to resume in the first fortnight of the year is tennis’s great GOAT debate. With Roger Federer retiring in 2022 and signing off at 20 Grand Slam titles, it’s now a race between Rafael Nadal (22 Slams) and Djokovic (21). The season-opening Australian Open, at which the un-jabbed Djokovic was not allowed to play last year, will reopen its doors to the Serb this month. This sets up a fascinating four Grand Slams, with World No. 1 Carlos Alcaraz, fresh off his maiden Slam at the US Open at 19, around to have a say too.

On to football, in February, Morocco, which scripted one of the most memorable World Cup stories in Qatar, will host the Club World Cup, the seven-team tournament among the continental club champions that is set to be expanded to 32 teams in 2025.

The resumed English Premier League promises a fight to the finish, while the UEFA Champions League, with its Round of 16 fixtures in February, will crown a winner on June 10.

The Formula 1 calendar, beginning in Bahrain on March 5 and concluding in Abu Dhabi on November 26, has a record-breaking 24 races lined up this year. The Formula E, meanwhile, will make a historic pitstop in India as Hyderabad readies to host the country’s first-ever electric-car race in February.

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