2018 tilted the way of the teens with Kylian Mbappé helping France to the FIFA World Cup, while Indian youngsters sent out signals from the Commonwealth Games and the Asiad that they should be taken seriously in Tokyo. Indian cricket is showing the promise of crossing the threshold of overseas wins in Test cricket, with Virat Kohli as the player who can make or break that promise, and who also carries India’s hope on the World Cup campaign next year. While P V Sindhu crossed a barrier by finally netting a gold, all eyes in 2019 are on the athletics field where the javelin juggernaut of Neeraj Chopra will be put to a medal test at the World Championships.
Cricket: X factor Dhoni
After a year of missed opportunities in Tests, where they raised hope but couldn’t cross the line in England and South Africa, India will look at the 50-over World Cup with more confidence. It’s right in their alley. All the traits that trip them in Tests end up as their strengths in limited-overs — the urge to play the big shots, the spin of Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal and their knack of picking up wickets against batsmen looking to attack, the bowling of Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Jasprit Bumrah in the opening and end overs.
They have been bolstered by the rapidly improving Khaleel Ahmed who has finally ended the search for a left-arm seamer. He might not be a household name yet but his performance will be vital for India in the tournament in England. The natural variation of a left-armer aside, he has the pace and the skill to come on the back of the new-ball bowlers and attack, something that India have lacked for a while in ODIs.
The flat tracks invariably served in ODIs should suit the settled batting lineup. Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan are probably the most settled opening pair today, especially on such tracks, and the follow-up act has Kohli and Ambati Rayudu. Rayudu’s success is vital: he has the confidence that he can overcome a poor start and hold the middle order, and the ability to take it to the opposition.
M S Dhoni could tilt the balance one way or the other. His calming presence and experience would be of great help to the spinners and to Kohli in the middle overs if things should drift a bit. It’s his batting that is still not a done deal, though. If he struggles, as he has in the past year or so, it can make things difficult for India, but if he manages to up his game a notch, it would complete this team.
Olympics: Chopra’s warmup
Seventy-five medals have been disbursed in the javelin throw at the Olympics since 1908 and only 8 have been to non-Europeans. No Asian man has ever won one, which explains the enormity of what Neeraj Chopra seeks to achieve at Tokyo 2020.
7:55 pm on October 6, 2019 will be the moment Indian sports will look forward to when Chopra takes on the combined hurling might of Europe at the Athletics World Championships. With a year to go for the Tokyo Games, the Worlds will be a marker of where the Indian stands on the global scale. In 2018, the 21-year-old Chopra boasted the sixth best throw in the world as he topped with 88.06m in the Jakarta Asiad, inching ever so close to that mental barrier of 90m. But getting the better of European throwers will be a steep step forward for the man who literally puts his entire bodily momentum behind sending that spear the farthest.
The coming year is important as a precursor to the Tokyo Games, with qualification in India’s Olympic staples of shooting, wrestling and boxing. In athletics, Hima Das is expected to qualify for 400m but it will be relay event where the Indian women can be counted on to make heads turn, even if the podium remains miles away. Anticipation will be rife when the wrestlers — Vinesh Phogat and Pooja Dhanda as well as the male grapplers like Bajrang — head to the World Championships looking for a top-6 finish that can seal Tokyo berths. The biggest domestic competition is in 57kg, while Sushil Kumar will make his last push in 74kg as he attempts qualification for a difficult third Olympic medal.
In shooting, which drew a blank in 2016, a clutch of teenagers are looking to burst on the seniors scene, and the one name most looked forward to is that of air pistol specialist Sourabh Choudhary. He leads several names — Manu Bhaker, Mehuli Ghosh, Elavenil Valarivan, Esha Singh, Lakshay Sheoran and Angad Bajwa — who are restless about hitting the big league. However, except for rifle shooter Anjum Moudgil, all other medals at 2018’s senior Shooting World Championships have come in non-Olympic events, leading to two conclusions — the seniors are a different level of competition, and India now craves the country’s first Olympic medal for a woman.
Indian boxing has had a rough ride since Vijender’s medal, but a stable training system raises hopes of a second medal in men’s boxing. Expect Mary Kom to continue to amaze, as she starts her journey towards the 51kg, once again facing taller, longer-reach pugilists. Considering the top names from 54kg will drop down, Mary Kom has to prepare for two divisions over her favoured 48kg category.
Badminton: All England
Coach Pullela Gopichand has stated his desire to reclaim the All England crown again — men or women — and March 6-10 will see India aim for the prestigious one. In an Olympic qualification year, it helps that none of Kidambi Srikanth, P V Sindhu and Saina Nehwal are defending big points, and go into the new year with no major injury concerns.
The World Championships will be the biggest event of a relatively sparse competition year after the CWG-Asiad scramble of 2018, but the unassuming sport will look to stay in the headlines by picking up titles. Sindhu ended the year on a high, winning the World Tour finals to end a breathless stretch of consistency, while Saina stays in contention with the new bunch. Sameer Verma has thrown his hat into the ring for the second men’s singles spot alongside H S Prannoy, and it will be interesting to see how Gopichand manages to steer the oft-neglected male players to the next level, even as he balances shepherding of Sindhu and Saina.
The promising Lakshya Sen will be under scrutiny in his freshman year on the seniors circuit, while Gayatri Gopichand’s career will be a thing of curiosity. The pair of Satwiksairaj and Chirag Shetty will look for a breakthrough doubles win.
Football: A little forward
After almost a decade, the India team will compete alongside the continent’s best teams at the Asian Cup in the UAE from January 5. The Blue Tigers go in as the world’s 97th-ranked side, the highest it has been placed in a long, long time. After two years of an unprecedented Indian climb up the FIFA ladder, the three group matches against Thailand, UAE and Bahrain will show the team’s actual standing in world, and Asian, football.
Midway through 2019, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) is likely to take a crucial decision that might have a huge impact on the way the sport is played domestically. For close to five years, India has had two “premier” tournaments — the Indian Super League and I-League. The AIFF, bound by its contract with commercial partners Reliance Sports, has not been able to come up with a merger formula that’s acceptable to all. Under pressure from FIFA and Asian Football Confederation, the AIFF has to ensure this year that there’s just one national league. In all likelihood, Mohun Bagan and East Bengal, the country’s most iconic clubs, will jump ship and join the more glitzy ISL. Consequently, the I-League will be reduced to second division. How smoothly the transition takes place remains to be seen.
Internationally, after France won the hugely entertaining men’s World Cup in Russia, they will host the women’s showpiece event from June 7 to July 7. The USA are once again the favourites, but France, Germany and Japan will hope to challenge their supremacy.
Tennis: Historic change
Change will be the theme for tennis going forward; the biggest, perhaps, in the form of restructuring a 118-year-old institution. Davis Cup, the historic team competition, will kick off its Gerard Pique-driven era on the weekend after the Australian Open with a single round of qualifiers, and finish in a glitzy finals week in Madrid from November 18 to 24. The format will change too, from five five-setters to three three-setters. For India, who host Italy on the grass courts of Kolkata’s South Club on February 1-2, the challenge remains the same: make it to the big leagues of World Group.
At the top of the sport, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal shared the year’s first two Grand Slams, and Novak Djokovic swept the back end. But with signs that they cannot go on forever, Federer and Nadal could rely on shrewder scheduling to make sure Djokovic doesn’t turn the clock back to 2015.
At the other extreme is the women’s tour, with its problem of plenty. Serena Williams has not won a Grand Slam since the 2017 Australian Open, but continues to dominate the headlines because the musical chairs on top of the rankings has seen many winners, but no true champion. Out of the last seven majors, five have been won by first-timers. In such an open field, Serena could not just equal, but surpass, Margaret Court’s haul of 24 singles titles.
Takeaways from 2018
France’s golden generation lived up to its hype, with Didier Dechamps leading them to the title 20 years after he won it as a player. Croatia relied on pluck to make their first-ever World Cup final while England rode on luck to go as far as the semis. Hosts Russia were hospitable off the field and unforgiving on it but the biggest takeaway was that this generation’s biggest players, Messi and Ronaldo, may never be World Cup winners.
Virat Kohli continued to be imperious, Cheteshwar Pujara forced others to acknowledge him finally, but it’s the rollicking run of the Indian pacers that really warmed hearts. Women’s cricket brought several individual milestones after the team made the final of the 50-over World Cup last season. But it ended in an almighty fracas that has divided the cricket Board right down the middle and added unnecessary asterisks to the careers of captains Harmanpreet and Mithali Raj. Still, all the intrigue has ensured women’s cricket is now firmly in the mainstream conscience.
Manika Batra was the find of the tournament as table tennis cornered welcome headlines with 3 golds, while established names like Mirabai Chanu, Jitu Rai, Vikas Krishan and Mary Kom, as well as the India badminton team led by heroics of Ashwini Ponappa-Satwiksairaj, pulled their weight to push India to third in the medals tally with 26 gold. The Gold Coast Games were the first strides taken by the likes of Manu Bhaker, Bajrang, Anish Bhanwala, Vinesh Phogat and Neeraj Chopra heading into the Tokyo Games cycle. It was also the first time Indians ditched the sari-blazer combo for smart pant-suits at the opening ceremony.
It was P V Sindhu all the way as she picked her fourth World Championship medal (a silver), won an unprecedented individual medal at the Asian Games and finally wrapped up the year by sensationally beating the field at the World Tour Finals for her biggest Championship victory. Saina Nehwal scythed through a tough field to win her first Asian Games bronze medal after picking her second Commonwealth Games gold. Sameer Verma, whose work rate is seriously impressive, slid the pieces of the puzzle together to earn himself a bagful of titles, emerging India’s best male player.