Virat Kohli in the T20 World Cup match against Pakistan, Melbourne, October 23, 2022 (Photo: Getty Images)
THE MOST COMPELLING SPORTING moment of 2022 for India arguably arrived not through the bat of Virat Kohli, when he hit two standout sixes against Haris Rauf in the T20 World Cup, but a few months earlier in Birmingham, in the unexpected form of the steeplechase runner Avinash Sable. You expect India to win World Cups in cricket. You don’t expect it to win medals in athletics, not unless the athlete is named Neeraj Chopra. And you certainly don’t expect it to win at steeplechases.
Running, especially in middle and long-distance categories, can appear like foregone conclusions. Kenyan athletes dominate these categories at the Commonwealth Games (CWG), as they do elsewhere. If one searches for a time when Kenyan runners have not picked up all three medals in the 3,000m steeplechase category, you will have to go all the way back to the 1994 edition, when a Canadian (Graeme Fell) managed to squeeze in and get his hands on a bronze.
For Sable, just being there at the 3,000m steeplechase event at CWG should have been enough. And when the event got underway, as expected, the pre-tournament favourites of Abraham Kibiwot, Amos Serem, and Conseslus Kipruto, a trio of celebrated runners from Kenya, pulled themselves ahead of the rest. Except right behind them, hard on their heels, was a plucky Sable.
Sable, the son of labourers at a brick kiln in Maharashtra’s drought-prone Beed district, who had once worked as a mason before getting a job in the Army, worked his way through the hurdles and ditches, and stuck to the three, trailing only a little behind. And then as they entered the final stretch, he stepped on the gas. It was as though he had chanced upon some hidden reserve of fuel. He pushed past Kipruto and Serem, and then he began duking it out with Kibiwot to the finish line. Sable finished the race in 8:11.20, shaving off more than a second of his personal best (a national record set earlier this year). He had fallen short of the gold medal by a mere 0.05 seconds, becoming, in the process, the first Indian to win a medal in steeplechase at the Commonwealth Games. He had won a silver, but it felt every bit as heavy as gold.
It wasn’t just Sable who shone at this edition of CWG. A year after Neeraj Chopra brought down the house at the Tokyo Olympics and India returned with its best-ever tally at the Olympics, the confidence of its athletes was unmissable. India won a total of 61 medals at CWG, 22 of them gold. It dominated the contact and strength-based sports, with its wrestlers, boxers, and weightlifters picking up medals in truckloads; its badminton stars swept up almost all medals (except for one in mixed doubles); the women’s cricket team came heartbreakingly close to winning a gold; and the women’s hockey team picked up a bronze, while the men a silver; and there were also medals for its paddlers, squash players, and others; and unexpected medals, such as those in lawn bowls.
Many of these medals were along expected lines. The level of competition seen in tournaments like CWG and the Olympics can be jarring. But India still stood out with its rich haul in track and field.
While the level of competition is higher at the Asian Games in many categories, it isn’t always the case in track and field events. This is because countries that tend to do well in these events, like Kenya, Nigeria, Jamaica, England, and Australia, perform at CWG. The only time India picked up a high number of medals in this category was in the 2010 edition in New Delhi, where it picked up a total of 12 medals, although the doping scandal involving its 4x400m relay team a few months down the line cast a heavy shadow. The next two editions combined brought only six medals.
This time, India picked up eight in all. From Sable’s 3,000m steeplechase silver, Murali Sreeshankar’s silver in long jump, the first in high jump (Tejaswin Shankar’s bronze), the first for a female javelin thrower (Annu Rani’s bronze), Priyanka Goswami and Sandeep Kumar’s medals in the 10,000m race walk (a silver and a bronze), to the rare sight of two Indians taking the first two positions on a podium (courtesy triple jumpers Eldhose Paul and Abdulla Aboobacker), the spread of India’s highest-ever medal tally in track and field was both wide and historic.
THE PROTAGONIST OF LAST YEAR’S GREATEST sporting moment missed CWG—Chopra was out with a groin injury—but his high moment this year had arrived just days before, at the World Championships in the US.
The colour of Chopra’s medal at this event, silver, might appear disappointing. But he had lost to one of the all-time great performances in javelin throw. The Grenadian Anderson Peters breached the 90m mark thrice at this event, two of those coming in his first two attempts. In comparison, Chopra started with a foul and a modest 82.39m. Chopra secured a silver only with his fourth throw (88.13m). It was a big moment. Because no Indian, apart from Anju Bobby George’s bronze in long jump in 2003, has ever won at the World Championship. Chopra would in fact go on to become the first Indian to win the Diamond Trophy—handed out to winners of the Diamond League, an elite track and field tournament held every year—later that year. For India’s GOAT, 2022 has seen him take his game a notch higher. His most famous throw might have been the 87.58m that won him the Olympic gold, but Chopra has already bettered that throw many times this year, the best being the national record-setting 89.94m in Stockholm. He is now closer than he has ever been to breaching the 90m mark.
The disappointment in Indian sport came in the one into which most love—and investment—is poured. In a year when it became clear that the engines of global cricket were going to revolve ever more around India and the Indian Premier League (IPL)—the BCCI auctioned the media rights for 2023-27 at an eye-popping ₹49,390 crore in total, bringing it in the league of the English Premier League and the US NFL in terms of cost per match—the Indian men’s cricket team underperformed.
It wasn’t just Sable who shone at this edition of the Commonwealth Games. A year after Neeraj Chopra brought down the house at the Tokyo Olympics and India returned with its best-ever tally at the Olympics, the confidence of its athletes was unmissable
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The fact that India was playing an outdated form of cricket in the limited overs format was evident right at the start of the year. They brought in a new management in the form of captain Rohit Sharma and coach Rahul Dravid, who talked up a new aggressive philosophy, but at the big tournaments, against the strong teams, the team appeared flat. It crashed out of the Asia Cup. Later at the World Cup, when conditions in the early part of the tournament turned out to be spicier than expected, the team jettisoned its new aggression for the familiar safe approach. This was enough when there were some extraordinary individual performances such as Kohli’s two sixes against Haris Rauf and plenty of luck in tight finishes. But not against teams like England whose playing style has transformed limited-overs cricket, and is now changing Test cricket too.
Indian cricket’s finances may bankroll the game, its players may be some of the greatest sportstars, and IPL one of the best finishing schools for cricketers, but in 2022, they appeared bereft of confidence.
There were some bright moments. Virat Kohli returned to his old imperious form, a new star in the form of Suryakumar Yadav arrived, and Ishan Kishan hit the fastest double-century in ODI history. Kishan’s performance in fact showed something of a path that Indian cricket could take if it has the will to.
Someone not high in the considerations for the 50-over World Cup next year before this performance—he will probably still not make it to the playing 11 when the first-choice openers become available—Kishan’s innings was both audacious and delightful. There was none of the familiar slow build and big flourish at the end. His foot was on the pedal right from the start, and he did not let it off even once. It was because of the way he played that India could reach 400, even consider 500. If Indian cricket remodels itself around such flair, the next World Cup in 2023 is still within reach.