From MS Dhoni to Leander Paes to Sushil Kumar, India’s biggest sport stars who might retire in 2016

For an Indian sports fan 2016 would be the time for teary farewells as India's biggest stars might retire and walk away into the sunset.

Written by Shivani Naik | Updated: December 27, 2015 4:02 pm
This could be the last chance to watch how each virtuoso burns, raves and rages against the proverbial dying of the light. This could be the last chance to watch how each virtuoso burns, raves and rages against the proverbial dying of the light.

Imagine. Hot chocolate and a movie you’ve seen a hundred times, whose lines will echo in your mind even if viewed on mute, with the gleeful prospect of a repeat watch that is your hundred-and-first. An easy couch to sprawl on, a book to curl up with under a quilt and a playlist on loop that was groovy two decades ago, but is still comfortably ambient for the tapping toes. It’s the stuff dreamy winter mornings are made of. Though, if your favourite fix for nostalgic reveries is sport in India, the 2015 Christmas-New Year menu for the mind could drift from one warm, fuzzy frame to next: Leander Paes to MC Mary Kom to Sushil Kumar and Yogeshwar Dutt to Sardar Singh and MS Dhoni with a dash of Yuvraj Singh and a garnish of the inimitable Harbhajan.

As 2015 winds up and 2016 rises on the horizon, these are a few precious careers that are expected to put up their last epic challenge in a year that will witness the Olympics and cricket’s T20 World.

A former hockey international of Athens Games vintage, now in his mid-30s, remembers asking Leander Paes back then if 2004 was to be his last Olympics. You throw such posers at the grand old wily fox of Indian sport very carefully, he now says with a chuckle. So, penning sporting obits of Indian sportsmen and women who are walking billboards for Dylan Thomas’ best refrain Do Not Go Gentle.. would be a tad insolent. But on the cusp of 2016, even that enigmatic smile that Paes threw in the direction of the curious member of the Athens contingent, is now 12 years old. 2016 would be a good time to build yourself a sports-fan’s Memory Jar, compiling the best mental souvenirs from past years.

The disclaimers — ‘IF they hang up their boots’ — are necessary for who’d have thought that a mother of three children could be furiously preparing for an Olympic boxing medal encore or that the modern-day great Pehelwaan Sushil could be working towards a ripping torso that can help upgrade his previous bronze and silver to an unprecedented gold. Or that MS Dhoni would be keen on a curtain call, to relive the glory of the first of his world titles.

For the sporting fan, it’s a cue to cling onto every unfolding memory and bottle the reminiscences for future winters. Hot cocoa and favourite rom coms might even pale in comparison.

Sardar Singh has never tasted the happy ending of an Olympic medal, or a World Championship podium, and is the youngest on our list at 30. But there is consensus in hockey circles that he is a once-in-a-generation talent and a fulcrum of Indian hockey whose talent is innate, though its translation into success looks very transient.

And the rarity of his back-flick pass when in full flow, makes him a sight you’ll continue to behold. It’s a throwback to Indian hockey’s romantic age, but no one really suspected it could be revived post Merwyn Fernandes of the ’70s or Jude Felix from the early-90s. Hockey thrives on the forward passes, the flicks, but Sardar’s backhand pass is executed with such delicious deception that it could leave defenders boggled and his fans applauding.

“Many people have tried it on the run,” says former international Ashish Ballal, “and failed to be as accurate as Sardar is,” he sighs. That, Sardar attempts the pass on the wrong foot, wildly sprinting — cutting a figure of tripping imbalance — adds to the layers of deception.

Though rival teams have sorted him out on that front intercepting it now, Sardar was the only one in this team who had the vision of the 25-30 yard through ball that could scythe parallel defenders, beat them with one pass.

The assurance he provides on the field through his defensive services and the ability to be running even in the 75th minute of extra time comes with a rider — coaches are prone to get greedy and dump all the workload on him, the fatigue leading to glaring unforced errors.

But if used in brief bursts of 10-12 minutes, Sardar Singh can rewind to days when he created mayhem in rival defenses with his through balls and make the Rio Games the pivotal point in India’s hockey history when a legacy was reclaimed for good.

Leander Paes, meanwhile, will try to reclaim the 20 year-old feeling of standing atop an Olympic podium. Zeeshan Ali, Paes’ first Davis Cup partner and now coach, recalls a conversation where he stated his intention of playing in a record-breaking 7th Olympics, an obsessive zeal that itself will be missed in Indian tennis. The three defining Ds of Paes’ career have been Davis Cup, doubles match-craft and drama played out in all its theatrical grandeur. “But his ability to back himself in every match against anyone in the world will be missed. He totally believes in what he’s doing, opponents’ rankings have never mattered,” Ali says, of the delightful disdain that has brought India several unlikely underdog victories.

There’s the instance against France when Paes stood a foot behind the service line returning Henri Leconte’s serve. The deferential distance is at least three feet behind the baseline. But Leander contrived to respond with an amazing drop shot, a winner, Ali says with what is undiminished wonder.

60-70 percent of his winners at this year’s three Grand Slam title runs have come at the net, and the incredulity of that survival skill that could never reliably dip into a reserve of exceptional groundstrokes or a top serve, will be missed. Perfecting an instinct is also an art — and science too — and Leander Paes showed the humility to work even further on his intuitive knack and add acutest of angles from which he could find the power for the volley kills and browbeat at the net turning tennis into an eyeball face-off sport.

The decipherable definitions of Leander Paes’ talent variously put it down to hand-eye coordination, a great pair of hands or reflexes. But what needs to be cherished in 2016, every layer of that court-craft peeled, is tagging the effort behind that effortlessness.

There is Tendulkaresque reading of the game — knowing from memory how an opponent would respond or precisely where he’d hit or even when not to move and cut that down-the-line. It surpasses anticipation. It borders on how mnemonics work in predilection in smartphones. It comes from having been in that situation a hundred times over. 2016 might be a good time to go snooping on and file away nuggets on Leander’s one-on-one battles with his opponents as he chases an elusive Olympic doubles title.

One Indian athlete who could rival Paes in this match-craft and cunning is India’s only individual double Olympic medallist Sushil Kumar. Sharp and shrewd to go with the naked power that sees him muscle through opponents even in 74 kg where he might be several inches shorter, Sushil downed the mighty Russians in Moscow for the 2010 World Championships gold.

“You don’t know how much pressure there was — from home officials to spectators, but Sushil didn’t back down and when he won that I knew he won’t rest easy till he wins Olympic gold,” coach Satpal recalls. It wasn’t a bout that was widely televised but in the one-sidedness of that epic result were glimpses of how Sushil Pehelwaan — the mud-pit turned mat wrestler would dream of ruling the wrestling world one day.

There’s about 500 odd daavs — maneuvers — that the great wrestler is proficient in. He has won 103 of his 107 international bouts and Satpal recalls how if he asked a 13-14 year old Sushil to repeat a move 100 times, he would practice it for a thousand. But the numbers will never be as intimidating as the colossal sight of the haathi chingaad – where an opponent is lifted over the head and rotated before being brought down with a vicious thud. It was perfected soon after he qualified for London. So the coming months will be exciting to watch Sushil first ward off the mighty domestic challenge from Narsingh Yadav and then draw from his bottomless well of technical tricks to aim for gold.

The feral muscular power masks the man’s ticking brain that can summon the right move at the right time, but there’s touches in defense, his speed and the deft execution of the Lakad bagga and Dhobipat dhadak and the Kalajang that increase the thrill of watching India’s greatest wrestler grapple.

Yogeshwar Dutt, Sushil’s fellow Olympics winner is considered to be technically even more adept than the double medallist. The variety is his repertoire — though subtly employed, is far greater, but even in a pre-youtube age where timeliness weren’t as flexible as with a cursor, you’d want to watch his signature move — the Phitle over and over.

The acrobatic leg twist where Dutt’s phenomenal abdominal strength drags his own body weight as well as his opponent’s into serial flips is the one trick you’d never tire of. It’s like you’ll never tire of watching Dolphins do their thing, such is the glee Yogeshwar Dutt can bring to his fans. It left the American coach wide-mouthed for a full 40 seconds in London.

Then there are legends who can repeatedly force critics to shut their traps. MC Mary Kom. It’s frankly not particularly foolish to write off a mother of three young boys if she is trying to win an Olympic medal in boxing. Two abdominal surgeries when she completely went off the grid between 8th August, 2012 and 2nd March, 2014 was enough fodder for the unbelievers.

But if history and ingestion of humble pie have taught her critics anything, it is to never write Mary off. She feeds off the pessimism, her supporting staff say she is the quickest to come back into shape — after nothing less than childbirths — and her body has the ability where injuries melt away nearing competition and she walks into a zone that shows no trace of nervousness when she is in fighting mode.

“On day of the fight she has one of the best match temperament. You might be dying of stress, but she’ll be cracking jokes,” says Nikhil Latey, who shadowed her training, shepherding her through fitness grind prior to London.

It’s her boxing mind however that will be missed once she leaves the ring. Like Leander and Sushil, Mary has oracular powers that can register, analyse and counter opponent’s actions like a powerful processor of a computer would.

While the flurry of punches from 46 and 48 kg have paved way for the tactical boxing as her body has undergone the wear and tear of training and motherhood, the 32-year-old remains India’s best bet for a boxing medal at Rio.

There’s all of the footwork to remember her by, when you could be mesmerised by simply watching the arcs drawn by the sneakers, and then there was the left hook of the southpaw — her erstwhile go-to that came from wide with speed and accuracy went around the opponent’s defense and landed the lethal blows even if she was unbalanced.

But against taller opponents, it’s come to nought — its potency negated by the strange angle.

What Mary’s fans will miss then, though, is how she could dial down what were considered her weapons that lost the bite when she moved up divisions, and quickly picked newer tricks to survive in the ring. Her London Olympics opening bout against the Polish girl, built like a tank, was an exhibition of complete boxing, but perhaps what will stay in public memory will always be the tug the mother feels for her children — her opener was on the twins’ birthday when she hung up on them telling her to come home for their birthday — and how she leaves that aside momentarily, blocking out everything else to try win medals.

It’ll always be an inspiring story of how Mary, a Manipuri girl, taught herself Hindi and English (she learnt neither at school) apart from perfecting her innate boxing intelligence to become India’s ultimate boxing icon. 2016 will be fascinating for what happens after the end-credits of the movie — in her case, literally — have rolled.

Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s movie will hit the screens after the last dice is thrown. India’s former World Cup winning captain, however, will be missed once he retires as much for what he did behind the stumps as for what he did in front. The wild slash over long-on to win the World Cup is legendary, but it’s his bread-and-butter stumper’s duties that will somehow leave glaring holes on the TV screen even as you try to blink away the inevitable.

His puppeteering of Ravindra Jadeja, the bowler, for one. “Jaddu, Pujara ko yahape taali bajaane ke liye nahi rakha hai,” he once told his left-arm spinner, urging him to give the ball some flight and set up a trap that would end with a catch at first slip.

The quickest stumper in the history of the game he might well have been, but there was also that nonchalant hip jutting manner of blocking a ball without bending. He was also a nightmare for the first slip given his whimsy ways when going for diving catches — a fact that his fans explained away like indulgent parents shrug away the antics of their brats.

But loyal followers talk with as much adoration about his attractive ugly batting as they do about his scurrying between the wickets. Great hands that could manoeuvre singles like a hockey stick’s dribble, Dhoni was also considered the greatest 2-run getter.

2016 will also signal the end of two careers that started circa 2000, bringing down the curtains on the age of Dada’s adored band of boys. Yuvraj Singh and Harbhajan are the last vestiges of Sourav Ganguly’s team.

Yuvraj had his golf swing follow through — that his fans salivate over, and the diehards can’t stop swooning over the cutely exaggerated dives when fielding. The casual amble to the crease when bowling — the pie chuckers — was perhaps as memorable as the ball smashing subject to the short ball not rising above the neck, pitch holding no imagined demons, and there being no quality seam, spin or pace in the opposition.

Harbhajan had a lot of swagger, made Ricky Ponting his bunny, picked assorted fights and wondered why critics grudged him the over 700 wickets he took without flighting the ball much. In the middle of this, he made the Top 10 of Test bowlers charts.

But 2016 will effectively be the last that India sees of its in-betweeners — Sehwag, Bhajji, Zaheer and Yuvraj — that immensely talented generation that was shepherded by the seniors but never quite came into its own as leaders.

Yes, the urge to keep going back to Yuvraj and Harbhajan whenever a No. 6 fails or spinners go awry will finally stop. But hold onto every sporting moment in 2016 — for a lot of character and characters will be gone from Indian sport by this time next year.

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