Independence Day Special: Sachin Tendulkar to Abhinav Bindra, a cavalcade of champions

India celebrate their 71st Independence Day on Tuesday. Hindustan Times salutes the country’s sporting heroes in the last seven decades. From cricket icon Sachin Tendulkar to Beijing Olympics shooting champion Abhinav Bindra, the country has had a slew of world beaters. Here’s our top picks

other sports Updated: Aug 17, 2017 16:37 IST
Dhiman Sarkar
Dhiman Sarkar
Hindustan Times, Kolkata
Independence Day,India's Independence Day,August 15
On India’s 71st Independence Day, Hindustan Times picks the country’s 70 standout sporting icons. If Sachin Tendulkar kept India’s cricket flag flying high, Olympians Abhinav Bindra and MC Mary Kom were not behind. Here’s a tribute to our sportspersons in the last seven decades.(HT Photo)

As India enter their eighth decade as a nation, Hindustan Times looks back with an equal measure of wonder and respect at the country’s sporting heroes and heroines over the past 70 years. Any compilation such as this could spark conversation, even consternation. Debate will inevitably focus more on those omitted than the chosen 70. The challenge for us was not compiling a list of sporting icons because there are many but keeping it to 70 because that is what the occasion -- India’s 71st Independence Day -- demanded. (INDIA’S TOP 70 - WHICH SPORT DID THEY PLAY?)

Excluded therefore were those who shone for India when it was still a colony or who had their best years as sporting legends before the country became independent. Some others didn’t make our cut because our definition of sport didn’t match what they excelled in; no offence meant, really. And there were cricketers, shooters and archers who were world-beaters on their day but lost out because we felt they weren’t consistent enough.

Each one of us will have a list of favourite sportspersons in the decades gone by but if this Independence Day compilation has 80% or more of that list, the effort would have been worth it. So here goes: from Balbir Singh (Senior), who took over the mantle from Dhyan Chand, through Sachin Tendulkar, whose batting records could be to cricket what a sub-nine 100m dash would be to mankind, Abhinav Bindra, who is desperately seeking company in a club where he remains the only member, MC Mary Kom and more.

LESLIE CLAUDIUS (Hockey)

Perhaps apocryphal, but a story about him still does the rounds of the Kolkata Maidan showing that nearly 60 years after his fourth and final Olympic medal, the legend of Leslie Claudius shines bright. In the sunset of his career, India’s finest half-back had lost a lot of mobility but not his uncanny sense of anticipation. So, as he would go for an interception, he would keep saying aloud “Le Lega, Le Lega” (will snatch, will snatch) and it was usually followed by a triumphant “Le Liyia (have snatched).” Rarely have opponents been psyched thus by reputation alone.

Leslie Claudius was the first Indian hockey player to win a 100 caps. (HT Photo)

Claudius, a small soft-spoken man who took to hockey by chance, has been immortalised in stone in Kolkata and has a road named after him in the city that was his home for over seven decades. During the 2012 Olympics, London renamed a metro station after him. The first Indian hockey player to get to 100 caps, he, along with Udham Singh, are our only athletes with four Olympic medals though it never stopped hurting him that his lone Olympic silver (1960) came when he was leading India. He was a player about whom Dhyan Chand would say “Claudius selects himself, now I have to select the team.”

MS DHONI (Cricket)

Who would have thought that this young man from Ranchi making a living as a TTE at the Kharagpur railway station would be the first captain in the history of the sport to win all ICC global events? That happened when MS Dhoni bagged the 2013 Champions Trophy after taking India to the 2007 World T20 title and the 2011 World Cup which was also the first time a host country won the 50-over championship. That happened with a six over long-on from the India skipper and the manner in which the Wankhede stadium then erupted could be the visual and aural definition of euphoria.

MS Dhoni continues to play limited overs cricket for India. (HT Photo)

Under MS Dhoni, India have also topped the Test rankings just as they have lost eight successive Test matches. But numbers never really defined the man whose ability to stay calm under severe pressure will be talked about as long as this game is played. Ditto his finishing skills with the bat in the 50 and 20-over games. Even someone like Sourav Ganguly, India’s most successful captain till the mantle passed to Dhoni, said MS Dhoni was always ahead of the curve in 50 and 20-over cricket. Need we say more as to why India got high on MSD?

SACHIN TENDULKAR (Cricket)

This is the story of a man who lived his life between 22 yards of a cricket pitch and had a nation in thrall. For one day short of 24 years. And when he left, it was with an impromptu farewell speech that has over 5 lakh hits on YouTube. Hours later, it was announced that he would be conferred the Bharat Ratna. From November 15, 1989, when he began batting for India to when he finally gave up, the country went through eight Prime Ministers and five Presidents. In that time, Sachin Tendulkar had scored 34,357 runs in 664 matches for India including 100 international hundreds. He also took 200 international wickets and scored the first double hundred in ODIs.

Sachin Tendulkar’s batting records will be difficult to surmount (HT Photo)

Tendulkar reserved his best against Australia and Shane Warne, who has nearly one thousand international wickets, has confessed to having nightmares bowling against him. Tendulkar had Don Bradman telling his wife that he reminded him of his playing days. He had all shots in the game and monumental powers of concentration, so much so that he could eschew some of his favourite shots and still score an international double hundred. Watching him make that 241 in Sydney, Martina Navratilova had said: “…It was truly remarkable. It was a lesson.”

ABHINAV BINDRA (Shooting)

Yes, Karni Singh and Randhir Singh more than did their bit representing India in five Olympic Games but to Abhinav Bindra goes the credit of bringing what seemed till then somewhat esoteric into the mainstream. India’s only individual Olympic gold medallist was also the world champion when he topped the podium in Beijing 2008, making light of a difficult back problem that meant he couldn’t pick up a rifle for a year.

Abhinav Bindra won a rare Olympic gold for India in the 2008 Beijing Summer Games. (HT Photo)

Add two near-medal performances in the 2004 and 2016 Olympics (despite suffering from the medical condition of Tonic Epilepsy), four Commonwealth Games gold in the 10m air rifle and a clutch of other medals in the Commonwealth Games, Asian Games and Asian Shooting Championships and it becomes easy to understand the importance of being Abhinav Bindra and why he was named ambassador for the Indian contingent to Rio. In a sport decided by the tiniest of margins, he is man obsessed with perfection in his craft. En route, he has endured a lot of pain, made a lot of sacrifices to be India’s ‘Goldfinger.’

MC MARY KOM (Boxing)

She is a five-time world champion, six-time worlds medallist, and was pretty much invincible in the 46kg category. But when women’s boxing was introduced in the 2012 London Olympics, she had to fight in the 51kg category. For many that would have been like asking Usain Bolt to run the 1,500m. But Mary Kom just knuckled down and got India a first Olympic medal in women’s boxing. This, when she was nearly 30 and after having been a multiple world and Asian champion.

Mary Kom’s boxing achievements have even inspired a biopic (HT Photo)

It fit with the life story of someone who made beating the odds a habit from childhood. Inspired by Dingko Singh, the boxer from Manipur who won the bantamweight gold in the 1998 Asian Games, Mary Kom battled poverty as a child and then had to get her father in her corner because initially he didn’t approve of her taking to boxing. Later in life, she also had to face sexual harassment. And she grew up in a state that battles insurgency. It is not without reason that she is referred to as ‘Magnificent Mary’.

VISWANATHAN ANAND (Chess)

All those who say ‘nice guys finish last’ have obviously not heard of Viswanathan Anand. Ditto those who say being a junior world champion usually means you would struggle to replicate that form at the senior level. If India have 47 Grandmasters now, it is largely because of the revolution started by this self-effacing boy from Chennai who was the first. Between then and now, Anand has also been a world champion five times. From 2007 till Magnus Carlsen dethroned him in Chennai in 2013, Anand was the undisputed king of chess.As he was between 2000 and 2002.

Viswanathan Anand remains one of India’s greatest sporting ambassadors (HT Photo)

The first Indian to be a world junior chess champion, Vswanathan Anand, was awarded the Padma Shri when he was 18. Known as the ‘Lightning Kid’ for the speed at which he made his moves, he is also the first sportsperson to get the Padma Vibhushan, India’s second-highest civilian award. Anand was the world’s No.1 chess player from 2007 till Carlsen toppled him in 2010 and has had a highest rating of 2817.

LEANDER PAES (Tennis)

From 1992, there hasn’t been a single edition of the Olympics that hasn’t had Leander Adrian Paes. But that would just be a marker in the breadth of this man’s achievements. In 1996, he ended a 44-year wait for India for an individual Olympics medal when he beat Fernando Meligeni for the men’s singles bronze. It took him to an elite club of athletes whose parents too have been Olympic medallists. A former junior US Open and Wimbledon singles champion and a former junior world No. 1, Paes went one shy of the medal round with Ramesh Krishnan in the 1992 men’s doubles competition in the Barcelona Olympics.

Leander Paes’ feats continue to leave India’s footprint in world tennis (HT Sports)

In a sport where it is not unusual to retire in your 20s, albeit in the singles games, Leander Paes continues to play and has notched up a milestone of having had over 100 partners. With one of them, Mahesh Bhupathi, Paes reached the finals of all four Grand Slams in 1999 winning the Wimbledon and the French. “What we achieved would be hard to replicate”, Bhupathi had said recently and it could well seem like understating the obvious. In 1998, Paes beat Pete Sampras and won his only singles title on the ATP Tour. He has a career Grand Slam in doubles and mixed doubles and is the world’s oldest Grand Slam champion. And he is only one win away from being the world’s best doubles player in the Davis Cup.

(Illustrations: Pranab Saha)

First Published: Aug 14, 2017 12:51 IST