Of Australia's Gabba blow, Neeraj's golden throw and Kohli-Ganguly row: The Indian sports review of 2021
- As sports in India delivered a roller-coaster of emotions, let’s take a look at some of its major highlights.
Sports have always been a hopeful escape for many; but in the past two years, their very existence was challenged by the deadly Covid-19 pandemic. While 2020 was learning on coming to terms and eventually adjusting with the ‘new normal’, this year saw sporting action going parallel against the otherwise harsh realities surrounding human life. Yes – there were some hiccups – but sports administrators and sportspersons braved the challenges with the utmost professionalism to deliver a spectacle for fans across the world.
Justifiably, India had a fair share of the good and the bad in the sporting world. 2021 saw return of international cricket action in India; the nation rejoiced its first-ever individual Olympic gold in athletics and the national hockey team ended a 41-year-wait for a podium finish at the Games. However, there were deaths that had a devastating effect on sports fraternity, retirements that left the fans heartbroken, and tournaments that were suspended or cancelled as the virus took precedence.
As sports in India delivered a roller-coaster of emotions, let’s take a look at some of its major highlights:
Neeraj Chopra’s glorious gold On August 7, the javelin thrower ended India’s wait for a first Olympic medal in athletics. With an 87.58m long throw, Neeraj sealed a top podium finish in Tokyo – which was also India’s first Olympic gold since Abhinav Bindra (Shooting) created history in Beijing 2008. Neeraj, who had already won the gold medals in Asian Games and Commonwealth Games, had also broken his own national record months before the Olympic gold, throwing 88.07m in the 3rd Indian Grand Prix in Patiala.
Breachers of Gabbatoir Rishabh Pant’s push to long-off for a single is an image that will remain etched in the memories of Indian fans for long. On January 19, India handed Australia their first defeat at Gabba since 1989 and won the Border-Gavaskar trophy for the second time in a row Down Under. After India faced a humiliating defeat in Adelaide Test, where the side was bowled out on 36, Ajinkya Rahane’s men pulled a fairytale comeback to defeat the hosts 2-1 in the four-match series.
‘Chak De’ – From reel to real It might have not been a podium finish for the women’s team, but Rani Rampal’s side produced a valiant performance in the Tokyo Olympics to finish fourth. India’s incredible 2-1 victory over Australia in the quarterfinals remained the highlight of the women’s campaign at the Games. The men’s hockey team, meanwhile, won the bronze medal after defeating Germany 5-4 in a closely-contested match, ending a 41-year-wait for a podium finish.
Women’s cricket resurgence The Indian women’s team made a return to international action for the first time since the Covid-19 pandemic and played two Tests this year – both away, against England and Australia. An inspired performance in both games secured a draw, with India being the more dominant side in their maiden pink-ball Test against the Aussies. The Indian cricketers also shined in the inaugural edition of ‘The Hundred’ and the Big Bash League, with T20I captain Harmanpreet Kaur and opener Smriti Mandhana finishing among the top-10 run-getters in the latter.
Records broken at Olympics, Paralympics India registered their highest-ever medal tally in both; the Olympics and Paralympics at Tokyo. While the country won seven medals (1 gold, 2 silver, and 4 bronze) at Olympics, the Paralympics contingent returned with an incredible 19 (5 gold, 8 silver, and 6 bronze). Two para-athletes; Avani Lekhara and Singhraj Adhana (both in Shooting) won twin medals at the Games.
Kidambi Srikanth scripts history In December, India’s leading men’s shuttler Kidambi Srikanth became the first male badminton player to win a silver medal at the BWF World Championships, held in Huelva, Spain. After defeating Lakshya Sen in an all-Indian semi-final, Srikanth went down to Singapore’s Loh Yean Kew 15-20 20-22.
Glory in Chess The Indian women’s team, comprising of Harika, Vaishali, Tania Sachdev, Mary Ann Gomes, and Bhakti Kulkarni clinched a silver medal at the World Championships. India lost 0-2 to Russia in the final of the team championship in October.
T20 World Cup disappointment India failed to qualify for the semi-finals of the T20 World Cup in the United Arab Emirates, as they were knocked out in the Super 12 stage of the tournament. India faced a devastating 10-wicket loss to Pakistan in their opening game before falling to New Zealand by 8 wickets. Virat Kohli, who had already announced his decision to step down from his leadership role in the shortest format, was succeeded by Rohit Sharma – which leads us to the next point.
Captaincy fiasco On December 8, the BCCI announced that Rohit Sharma will replace Virat Kohli as the ODI captain, confirming that the opener is India’s full-time white-ball skipper. The next day, board president Sourav Ganguly revealed that he had urged Kohli to not leave his captaincy in T20Is in October but he “refused". Roughly a week later, Kohli – still the Test captain – insisted that no such request was made. The explosive revelation from the Indian red-ball skipper gave rise to speculations over an alleged rift between Kohli and the BCCI President.
Shooting struggles The Indian shooters failed miserably when it mattered the most and, on a stage, where they were primed for success – the Olympics, making 2021 one of their worst years in recent memory. India failed to win a single medal in the sport and only two shooters out of a 15-member squad; Saurabh Chaudhary and Manu Bhaker; could qualify for the medal rounds in two separate events.
The legends who left us On June 18, one of India’s greatest athletes Milkha Singh passed away at the age of 91 due to Covid-related complications. Fondly known as the ‘Flying Sikh’, he remains the only athlete so far to have won gold medals in 400m race at the Asian Games and the Commonwealth Games. A Padma Shri awardee, Milkha Singh is best remembered for his fourth-place finish in the 400m final at the 1960 Olympics.
This year, we also lost 1983 World Cup winner Yashpal Sharma, who died on July 13 due to a heart attack. Renowned athletics coach OM Nambiar, former badminton star Nandu Natekar, Asian Games gold medallist boxer Dingko Singh and renowned football journalist Novy Kapadia also passed away this year.
Retirements that hurt Shortly after a historic Olympic triumph, Rupinder Pal Singh – widely regarded as one of the best drag flickers in hockey – announced a shock retirement from the international game. Merely hours later, Birendra Lakra, who was also a part of the bronze-medal winning team, confirmed his retirement from the national team. On December 24, veteran India spinner Harbhajan Singh also drew curtains to a stellar cricket career that spanned 23 years.
COVID impact on IPL The 2021 edition of the season made a return to India, but unfortunately coincided with the peak of a second Covid-19 wave in the country. The bio-secure bubble was eventually breached with multiple players from IPL franchises testing positive for the dreaded virus, forcing the BCCI to suspend the tournament in early May. The remainder of the season was eventually completed in September-October in the United Arab Emirates.
Manisha Kalyan The 20-year-old Indian footballer brought joy to the country in the early morning hours when she scored the equalising goal against Brazil in the International Women’s Football Tournament of Manaus. India eventually lost the game 6-1 but the tournament played an important role in providing the Indian women footballers with much-needed exposure.
Ajaz Patel The New Zealand left-arm spinner became the only third bowler in the history of Test cricket to take 10 wickets in an innings. He achieved the feat during the second Test against India in Mumbai – which is also Ajaz’s birthplace.
U20 World Athletics Championships India won three medals at the championships with Amit (10,000m walk) and Shaili Singh (long jump) winning silver, while the mixed 4x400m relay team clinching a bronze medal.