Tennis ace Sania Mirza and top shuttler Saina Nehwal ensured that sports other than cricket also had their moments of glory as they geared up for next year’s Olympics in a low-key 2015.
That cricket dominated headlines for most part of the year was hardly a surprise given the drama which unfolded, both on the field and inside the BCCI power corridors.
Whether it was Virat Kohli starting his Test captaincy reign in the middle of a high-profile series in Australia or N. Srinivasan waging a lone battle to save his chair before eventually bowing out from both the BCCI and the ICC, cricket was undoubtedly a soap opera that had the fans hooked.
The feisty and ferocious Kohli ushered in the new age Indian cricket team with an approach which had the purists divided.
The sight of an Indian team unabashed about getting under the opponents’ skin as much with words and gestures as with sheer superiority of skill was met with mixed response from both the fans and yesteryear stars of the game.
It was also a year which marked the end of an era with the retirement of swashbuckling opener Virender Sehwag and pace spearhead Zaheer Khan.
The Indian Premier League continued to churn out on and off field drama with Chennai Super Kings and Rajasthan Royals suspended for two years for involvement of their key officials Gurunath Meiyappan and Raj Kundra in betting-related activities during the 2013 season.
Meiyappan, the former team principal of CSK, and RR co-owner Kundra were suspended for life for indulging in betting and bringing the IPL and the game into disrepute.
But the players of the two teams were not made to suffer even as they had to split ways with new inductees Pune and Rajkot pitching for the big guns from the suspended sides.
If Pune got the prized catch in Dhoni, then Rajkot bagged Suresh Raina, the two CSK veterans, who had seen the champion side win three editions of the cash-rich league.
Success stories in tennis, Badminton
Away from the cricket field, it was a year in which Sania was unarguably the biggest success story with her staggering 10 titles on the tour — two of them Grand Slams.
Her pairing with Swiss legend Martina Hingis was near invincible through the year and the duo enjoyed a 55:7 win-loss ratio, clinching nine titles together in all. The stupendous success catapulted the duo to world number one spot in women’s doubles.
Among the men, India’s ‘ageless wonder’ Leander Paes continued to bring laurels for himself by winning three Grand Slam mixed doubles titles with Hingis being the common factor.
If Sania ruled the tennis court, Saina rediscovered herself on the badminton court, becoming the first Indian woman shuttler to occupy the No. 1 spot, though for a brief period, before injury derailed her run to an extent.
The London Olympic bronze-medallist snared two titles and became the first Indian woman to make the finals of the All England and the World Championships.
The problem of sports administration
The shooters bagged seven Olympic quota places through various events and they would once again be the country’s prime medal hope in Rio de Janeiro
However, as has been the case for several years, administration of sports in India remained woefully managed.
While the men and women who matter got busy preparing for Rio Olympics next year, the politicking among officials, especially boxing, made for a depressing footnote. In fact, the sport does not have a national federation anymore and the effect is beginning to show inside the ring as well with none of the boxers managing to secure an Olympic berth so far.
However, Vijender Singh turned out to be one bright spot amid the gloom, stunning one and all with his decision to turn professional. He has so far been an unstoppable force, winning all his contests via knockouts.
Coming to other sports, grounded in obscurity for long, India’s young shooters and exponents of skeet shooting came of age with eye-catching performances at home as well as on foreign shores.
The likes of Abhinav Bindra, an Olympic champion and the country’s most talked-about marksman, pistol ace Jitu Rai, Gagan Narang and Apurvi Chandela, among others, helped in swelling the number of quotas earned by India for the coming summer’s quadrennial extravaganza in Rio de Janeiro.
Often considered the weakest discipline for Indian shooting, skeet also took a step forward with Mairaj Ahmed Khan securing the country its maiden Olympic quota in the category.
A roller-coaster year for hockey
In hockey, on-field achievements often jostled for space with off-field drama. The players scripted historical feats but coach Paul van Ass’ acrimonious ouster and Gurbaj Singh’s suspension created its share of storm.
While the women team’s return to Olympics after a hiatus of 36 years and men team’s breaking of a 33-year-old medal jinx in a major international tournament by winning Hockey World League Final were the high points, van Ass’ bitter sacking and experienced midfielder Gurbaj’s nine-month suspension summed up a mixed year for Indian hockey.
With a pretty decent start to his stint, van Ass’ next assignment was the Hockey World League (HWL) Semi-final in Antwerp, Belgium.
In HWL Semi-final, India put up an inconsistent show but managed to finish fourth, losing 1-5 to Great Britain in the third-fourth place play-off match.
But a major controversy broke out after India returned from Antwerp as van Ass was sacked unceremoniously just six months into his job following a bitter public spat with Hockey India president Narinder Batra.
Another success story was scripted on the golf course as Anirban Lahiri savoured unprecedented success, dominating the headlines with his record-breaking achievements, which included two European tour titles and a fifth place finish at a Major.
In a watershed year which saw him juggle between Asia, US and Europe, Lahiri emerged as the new poster boy of Indian golf clinching the Indian Open and Maybank Malaysian Open, earning a fifth place finish at PGA Championship, qualifying for the prestigious President’s Cup, claiming the Asian Tour Order of Merit and achieving a career-best ranking of World No. 34 among others.
On the football field, the national team plummeted to depths unseen in years but the mediocrity, which has become a norm with the beleaguered outfit, got lost in the shrill din of the spectacle called Indian Super League even as the great Pele grabbed headlines briefly with his week-long sojourn.
Globally, the beautiful game witnessed the good, bad and ugly in equal measure.
From Barcelona’s treble winning season to Cristiano Ronaldo claiming the Ballon d’Or for the second time running, to the long-standing FIFA president Sepp Blatter and UEFA chief Michel Platini getting banned for eight years by the apex body’s Ethics Committee, football had a bit of everything for almost everyone.
On the flipside, weightlifting brought India a bad name with the highest number of dope cheats this year, threatening the country’s participation in next year’s Olympic Games with the Indian Weightlifting Federation (IWF) staring at a suspension.
In track and field, as many as 15, including ace discus thrower Vikas Gowda, qualifying for the Rio Olympics was the highlight of a year of mixed achievements while off the track, young sprinter Dutee Chand won a landmark case against world body of the sport IAAF.
Also, the buzz around India’s speculated bid for the 2022 Olympics died after IOC President Thomas Bach — during a visit to the country — ruled out any such possibility.
With all eyes trained on the Olympics next year, 2016 promises to be infinitely more exciting for the country’s sportspersons.
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