Neeraj, Pragg and Prannoy – a high noon for Indian sport?
The Indian sports fan has plenty to celebrate on this National Sports Day (August 29), the birth centenary of hockey wizard Dhyan Chand
More than a day after Neeraj Chopra made them proud again on the world stage, neither the Indian sports fan nor its media can still keep calm. It's given them something to cheer about on their country's National Sports Day (August 29), and it's also worth noting that these are exciting times to be a sports fan in India.
A momentous day to celebrate the birth anniversary of Dhyan Chand Singh, the hockey maestro who first put India on the global sports map, 29 August usually comes and goes with its importance usually measured with the announcement of the Union government’s major sports awards.
However, the last three months have brought about enough good tidings to show India’s growing prowess in athletics, chess, badminton, golf, football and of course, hockey. And what better tribute could it have been than this to the maestro’s memory.
While Chopra, now world No.1, was expected to have a podium finish. But what took one by surprise was the emergence of a handful of unheralded names who showed they were not in it to simply make up the numbers in Budapest. No amount of praise is adequate for the young men's 4 × 400m relay team, the women's steeplechaser Parul Chaudhury, and the men's long jumper James Aldrin, who now has company in the form of DP Manu and Kishore Jena, both of whom are world champions in their respective events.
If the weekend belonged to Chopra and his ilk, it was an 18-year-old gawky lad from Chennai who held the chess world in thrall last week. Ramesh Praggnanandhaa, who emerged as the second youngest player after the legendary Bobby Fischer and Magnus Carlsen to qualify for the Candidates Series in 2024, came agonisingly close to being only the second Indian after Viswanathan Anand to win the FIDE World Cup.
Pragg, who eventually lost the final in a tie-breaker to Carlsen, a five-time world champion, had a dream run in the elite tournament where he had scalped the world number 2 and 3 on his way to the final. Four players under the age of 20 (Prag, N. Gukesh, Arjun Erigaisi, and Nihal Sen) made up the last eight in a tournament of this calibre, and the chess world stood as one to applaud this incredible production line of youthful talent in India.
If this was not enough, world number 9 H.S. Prannoy added an elusive World Championship badminton medal for him on Saturday when he finished with a bronze. He eventually lost in the semi-final to his nemesis Kunlavut Vitidsarn of Thailand, but it can hardly overshadow his stupendous come-from-behind win against world No.1 Viktor Axelson in the quarters – a feat which ensured him the medal.
The month of August was also a happy one in hockey when Harmanpreet Singh and Co showed they were battle-ready for the Asian Games in September with an emphatic triumph at the Asian Champions Trophy at home. Playing before a choc-a-bloc Major Radhakrishnan Stadium in Chennai, the Men in Blue made a mockery of the much-talked-about rivalry against Pakistan with a 5-0 rout while they hammered Malaysia in the final.
At the British Open in the third week of July, a mild-mannered Subhankar Sharma, a player to watch on the European Tour, was making waves far from the audience. The 27-year-old Indian tied for eighth place in the oldest of the four major tournaments in the sport, the best-ever placing for an Indian in what is now known as The Open.
Meanwhile, Indian football, which has frequently been the target of jokes due to its lack of significant accomplishments, demonstrated a wind of change. They won the Intercontinental Cup in Bhubaneswar in June, and in Bengaluru, they won the SAFF Championship. They managed to persuade the powers that be to give them tickets to the Asiad despite not matching the eligibility requirement (a top eight finish in the most recent Games) thanks to their winning habits in both of these competitions, which featured some great competition from Gulf countries Lebanon and Kuwait.
The ‘Blue Tigers’, under Sunil Chettri’s leadership and the charismatic head coach Igor Stimac’s guidance, has been showing a can-do attitude. And that can only be good news for the country’s football and sports in general.