Ten years ago, almost to the month, Indian sport seemed headed for an eternal spring. Viswanathan Anand was the World Chess Champion, the first time ever that an Indian player had reached the pinnacle of the sport. In cricket, India had beaten Australia in a modern-day classic. Pullela Gopichand won the All-England Badminton Championship in March 2001, becoming the first Indian player since Prakash Padukone to do so. Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi had decided to go their own ways, but reunited one final time to win the French Open tennis doubles. The Junior Hockey team clinched the world title, raising hopes that the nucleus of a world beating side was in place. A new crop of young chess players looked to be on their way to emulating Anand. To Ramanathan Krishnan, arguably India’s finest tennis player ever, it was the beginning of a “golden era” in Indian sport.
The spring just gone by had its moments of glory as well, albeit a little less spectacular than a decade ago. Anand reached his highest-ever Elo rating of 2817 in April. A reunited Paes and Bhupathi are again the world’s top ranked doubles team. India is the official limited-overs cricket champion and has a world champion in middle weight wrestling, Sushil Kumar.
That’s way too little though, after what the new millennium promised. Ten years is a long time to make a mark, if a systematic development programme is in place. Two Olympic medals in shooting, and a medal each in boxing and wrestling notwithstanding, we still do not count as a sporting power. It is disappointing that Anand and the tennis duo are still the torch bearers of their respective sports. Something is still seriously missing.
To ascribe India’s failure to the lack of a “sporting culture” would be trivialising the problem. Instead, let us identify a couple of tangible factors that if seriously addressed would go a long way in laying the foundation of future success. Above all, sports infrastructure in the country is highly concentrated. High-quality sports infrastructure, if it exists at all, is still concentrated in a few urban centres, far away from the real talent hotspots. Too often, this talent withers on the vine for want of opportunity.
Take hockey, the official “national sport”. Most tournaments in the country at the sub-national level are still played on grass. By the time a player comes through the ranks and plays at the national level on synthetic surfaces, it is too late to adjust his/her technique to the demands of the new surface. It is surprising how few “turf” pitches are available even in traditional powerhouses of the sport like Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Bhopal. This holds true across the board, with the exception of cricket. The Sports Authority of India has tried to spread its reach, but it is largely private initiative that is providing facilities that the government ideally should.
The second factor is the top-down structure of the various sports associations. Almost every sports association is headed by a politician or bureaucrat with little or no knowledge of the sport. Even if one were to reconcile to this as a by-product of a paternalistic society, the lack of autonomy to the people trying to make a difference – the sportspersons and the coaches – is what ultimately pulls the sport down. In cases where the heads of associations have confined them to what they should – fund raising, creating the requisite infrastructure and providing much-needed international exposure, while leaving coaching and team selection to the coaches – the results have been encouraging. An enlightened leadership can do wonders to revitalise a sport under its watch.
There is really no reason why this should happen. The India of 2011 is a lot richer than it was in the 1980s. If sport is an extension of national ambition, it is important to lay the foundation with single-minded dedication, as China has successfully done. Even in India, when things have come together, individuals have shown that the wherewithal to succeed exists. In particular, the recent wins in boxing and wrestling have demolished the tired myth that Indians do not have what it takes to succeed in sports which need explosive power or strength. What was missing was systematic talent spotting and nurturing, starting at the grass roots. The successes brought about by a nascent programme should lend belief that it is possible.
Is the next spring in sports a decade away? Let us hope not. The hedgehogs are out of their boroughs. We should ensure they stay there for awhile.