Neeraj Chopra's exit will test depth of Indian athletics

Jul 27, 2022 12:05 AM IST

The Olympic champ has been the undisputed star of Indian athletics but with him missing, how will the others fare?

India's medal chances at the upcoming Commonwealth Games (CWG) in Birmingham received a major jolt on Tuesday with Olympic gold medallist Neeraj Chopra pulling out of the quadrennial event due to a groin strain sustained during the World Championships final last week.

Chopra's absence has surely taken some sheen off the athletics events(REUTERS) PREMIUM
Chopra's absence has surely taken some sheen off the athletics events(REUTERS)

Chopra's absence has surely taken some sheen off the athletics events where the stage was nicely set for another showdown between the defending champion and two-time reigning world champion Anderson Peters. On the bright side though, it has cast a spotlight on the likes of DP Manu and Rohit Yadav, who will now lead India's charge in men's javelin.

"It's a golden opportunity for youngsters such as Manu and Rohit to shine. If they do their personal best, they'll be in contention," said coach Kashinath Naik, who in 2010 had become India's first male medallist in javelin at CWG.

It will, however, be easier said than done for the two Indians. The field will be led by Peters, but the challenge from Trinidad and Tobago's Keshorn Walcott can't be underestimated either. With a season's best of 89.07m, the 29-year-old will fancy his chances for a maiden CWG podium. Barring a below-par Worlds, Walcott has thrown at least 84m in each event he has participated this year.

"The competition will be there, but I have high hopes from Manu who is consistently throwing 85m in training," said Naik of his ward. "His first target should be to break the 85m barrier. Once he gets a big throw in the final, he'll be in the reckoning."

Manu has gone past 80m twice this season, including an 84.35m throw at the National Inter-State Meet in June where Yadav registered a throw of 82.54m. Yadav, who made the World Championships final recently, has five throws of over 80 metres this season.

Serial record-breaker Avinash Sable will once again carry nation's hopes in the 3000m steeplechase, but it will take a historic effort from the 27-year-old armyman to break the Kenyan hegemony. Kenya have taken all three podium places in the event since 1998, and despite Sable owning the fifth fastest CWG time this year (8:12.48), a top-three finish looks unlikely. It's a measure of Sable's endurance and skills though that the four men preceding him and two men behind him on the list are all Kenyans.

Among women, javelin thrower Annu Rani, after a seventh-place finish in Eugene, will hope for redemption. The eight-time national record holder is second on the list of throwers from Commonwealth nations this year, her season's best of 63.82m only behind world champion Aussie Kelsey-Lee Barber's mark of 66.91m. Annu will also face stiff competition from Canada's Elizabeth Gleadle (SB 63.33m) and Australia's Mackenzie Little (SB 63.22m).

"It will be a good opportunity for Annu too. She will have competition, but she may well be a dark horse," reckoned Naik, who coached Rani between 2014-18.

All eyes will also be on long jumper Murali Sreeshankar, who occupies three of the top four jumps among Commonwealth competitors this season. The event will be another test of nerves for the 23-year-old, who has been a disappointment at most major events thus far. Sreeshankar entered World Championships with the second-best jump of the season (8.36m) but failed to clear 8m even once, finishing seventh with a leap of 7.96m.

Underwhelming as it is, Sreeshankar's Worlds flop was still better than other Commonwealth competitors in the fray, with Jamaica's Wayne Pinnock and Gold Coast silver medallist from Australia, Henry Frayne, finishing ninth and 12th respectively.

Muhammed Anees Yahiya, India's other long jumper, has had a decent season too. The 26-year-old has jumped 8 metres five times this year, and will fancy his chances for a maiden CWG medal. While the likes of Frayne and 2018 bronze medallist Ruswahl Samaa of South Africa have not been up to scratch, it'll be imperative for the Indians to log 8m-plus jumps in Birmingham, considering all podium finishers at each of the last four Games have all cleared the mark.

If recent form is anything to go by, men's triple jump may witness an unlikely Indian dominance in Birmingham, provided the trio of Eldhose Paul, Praveen Chithravel, and Abdulla Aboobacker performs to its potential. While Aboobacker and Chithravel have jumped in excess of 17 metres this season, Paul, a World Championships finalist, has a season's best of 16.99m. No other Commonwealth competitor has leapt more than 16.95m this year.

Men's triple jump pit will bear a whole new look this time, with top-five finishers from CWG 2018 nowhere in the picture. Gold Coast gold and silver medallists — Guyana's Troy Doris and Dominica's Yordanys Duranona Garcia — have faded out, while Cameroon's Marcel Mayack, who finished third, lies joint-18th on the leaderboard this season (16.18m). Arpinder Singh, who finished fourth last time, has been out of India reckoning while England's Nathan Douglas hasn't managed a 16m jump this year.

Birmingham 2022 may also see the swansong of discus veteran Seema Punia. The 38-year-old has won four medals from four CWG appearances, but a gold is still missing from her cabinet. Despite failing to touch 60 metres this season and with the likes of 2018 bronze medallist Navjeet Kaur Dhillon in the ranks, Punia will hope for a fairytale finish.

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    Shantanu Srivastava is an experienced sports journalist who has worked across print and digital media. He covers cricket and Olympic sports.

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