While 2017 saw Indian sport consolidate itself — Virat Kohli shone as cricket captain and badminton emerged as the Olympic sport with lots of excitement around it — 2018 should be a good indicator of where the country really stands as a sporting nation.
The next year will be big for almost all major sports India plays — cricket, hockey, badminton — with round-the-year action pinning fans down in front of TVs or stuck to mobile phones livestreaming the events. The headline sporting event of the year, though, will be the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, a tournament that will be missing Italy, Chile and Holland in the list of the qualified 32.
While Indians can sit back and revel in the neutral’s corner during the World Cup, they will, hopefully, have reason to bite their nails during the Commonwealth Games in April and the Asian Games in August-September. And in January-February, June-September and November-January 2019, when Virat Kohli’s men take on the biggies — South Africa, England and Australia respectively — chasing the eternal dream of a definitive Test series win overseas.
2017 saw India achieve unprecedented success across formats — but its overseas Test exploits were restricted to only Sri Lanka. The coming year presents the team with the opportunity to slay the demons of genuine pace on wickets abroad.
First up is a three-Test series in South Africa, against Dale Steyn, Kagiso Rabada and Morne Morkel. England and Jimmy Anderson will be up next, over five Tests spanning the summer. India’s last two Test series in Old Blighty were dismal; Kohli himself got a mere 134 runs from 10 innings in 2015. To become the undisputed king of modern-day batting, India’s captain needs to succeed in England. During the end-of-the-year tour of Australia, Josh Hazlewood, Mitchell Starc, James Pattinson and Pat Cummins will give India’s batsmen a test of character.
With an eye on the 2019 World Cup, the One-Day squad will start to take final shape from the second half of the year. Chief Selector MSK Prasad has backed MS Dhoni to continue at least until that showpiece event, but at 36 years, form can be fickle for any cricketer.
The Under-19 team will play the World Cup in New Zealand in January-February. The colts lost the final against the West Indies two years ago, and will try to make amends now. India’s women will host Australia and England for both ODIs and T20s as part of the ICC Women’s Championship in November.
Like the Olympics, the Football World Cup, too, is frequently seen through the prism of politics, and is often a test of — and advertisement for — the host country. Over the last year or two, Russia, where the World Cup will be played from June 14 to July 15, has been accused of everything from meddling with the US elections to state-sponsored doping, which resulted in it being booted out of the Winter Olympics of December 2018. In the current climate, for Russia to host players from 32 nations, and fans from many more, will be akin to lifting the proverbial iron curtain.
While the routine concerns over incomplete stadia and infrastructure have not been raised so far, there is growing paranoia over potential racism against players and supporters, and hooliganism — problems that have pegged back Russian football. But the friendly atmosphere seen at the FIFA Confederations Cup in June-July this year indicated those fears may be unfounded. And if the World Cup finals are half as exciting as the qualifying campaign — which saw the dramatic failures of powerhouses Italy and Holland, and the fairytale successes of lightweights Iceland and Egypt — we are in for a monthlong treat. Russia 2018 will also be, in all probability, the last chance for Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo to lift the only trophy still missing from their cabinets. For the hosts, however, the tournament will be played far beyond the field — Moscow will be keen to make a statement similar to the one that Beijing did with its spectacular conduct of the 2008 Olympic Games.
The 2018 Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Australia, from April 4-15, will be the first multi-discipline meet to have an equal number of events for women and men — a massive breakthrough for gender parity in sport. For India, the Games will bring boxing legend M C Mary Kom back into the ring, with the introduction of her preferred 45-48 kg weight division, in which the mother of three is the most comfortable. Two additional medals will be up for grabs — in the women’s 54-57 kg and +75 kg divisions. More prizes for women will be available in weightlifting and cycling too.
These Games might be the last stomping ground for India’s golden generation in Commonwealth shooting — the sport will likely be excluded from the 2022 Games. In Melbourne 2006, India’s shooters won a bagful, and air pistol king Samaresh Jung earned the nickname ‘Goldfinger’. The Games will be a good reckoner for active Olympic stars Sakshi Malik, Sushil Kumar, P V Sindhu and Saina Nehwal. While badminton, shooting and wrestling will be the low-hanging fruit, India will look to make a statement in athletics and hockey — and any medal in swimming, gymnastics or basketball will be new ground broken.
The big attraction in sun-kissed Gold Coast will be beach volleyball. India will not be a participant, but the most extensive integrated parasport programme in CWG history — with 300 para-athletes and 38 medal events across seven sports, including the first ever wheelchair marathon (T54) — is a reason for Indian fans to get excited.
China, Japan, the rest of the Far East and the Middle East take these Games extremely seriously. But here are the reckoners for India at the August 18-September 2 event: anything less than gold will be a step back in hockey; a gold in individual or team badminton will perhaps be the biggest prize for Indian shuttlers in 2018; and no matter how many golds the wrestlers win in Gold Coast, their real test will come against Asian giants Uzbekistan and Japan in the twin cities of Jakarta-Palembang.
Irrespective of whether he wins gold at Gold Coast, Sushil Kumar’s career will be incomplete without an Asiad gold — ditto for Saina Nehwal and the rest of the shuttlers. Shooting’s biggest test will come at the mixed event (men and women on a team) — and will give a chance to Jitu Rai to come back from the cold. For the kabaddi players, nothing but gold will do. And expect Dipa Karmakar, back after surgery, to roll out her flips and rolls once again.
Asiad 2018 will see more than one city host the Games — a model that India might want to emulate. However, the chief attraction for the world is likely to be the maiden entry of e-sports — video games for the uninitiated — as a demo sport. This revolutionises the very idea of what constitutes sport, even if boundaries have already been pushed by including mechanical sports like jet skiing and paragliding.
In hindsight, it is best to see 2017 as a lung-opener for the rest of the Olympic cycle where badminton — one of India’s sunshine sports with multiple contenders and consistent results — will face sterner tests. The year right after the Olympics tends to be one of hibernation for a lot of top names, but they will return with a bang in 2018, which has two Grade 1 tournaments — the Thomas and Uber Cup Finals in Thailand in May, and the World Championships in China in late July.
While badminton’s big names will be expected to peak on multiple occasions, the CWG and Asiad included, and the revamped international schedule appears like it will swamp the top rung, the rules of engagement will remain the same: pick the tournaments you want to focus on, and aim for the big Sunday finals. This year was glorious for P V Sindhu and Kidambi Srikanth, even though the big title eluded both; 2018’s Thomas Cup will be a test also for the men’s singles shuttlers.
Expect Saina Nehwal to work hard to follow up on her remarkable World Championship bronze in August 2017. H S Prannoy’s test will be to step up and convert his big game into titles. In doubles, the search for that breakthrough title win, and consistency, will continue. In terms of rivalries — and it is Japan that has been the nemesis, not China — look no further than Sindhu vs the rest of the world in the women’s games, and Japan’s Kento Momota vs the Indian pack in the men’s singles.