Indian Sports Since Independence


Some amazing freeze frames jostle with one another in the mind's eye as I sit down to look back at sport in independent India. Few things have bound India as a country as sport has - be it in victory or in defeat. Few things have cemented the diverse communities together, compelling crowds to think in terms of the country, break down barriers or nourish the ideals of a nation.

All those years ago, India found its soul on the maidans, to the innocent sounds of bat against ball, stick against ball, boot against leather spheres and the roar of a young country that was learning that sport  and sport alone could forge that chain, every link of which would spell 'Nation'. Indeed, sport welded the country into a whole, as the Commonwealth Games 2010 Delhi are doing today.

It is a matter of regret that the British did not leave our economy in a shape in which sport could be made a priority. It did not afford us the chance to focus our energies on sport but, in the past few years, corporate sponsorship has come in handy to keep us going. And yet, we have not emerged as a sports conscious nation.

Indeed, this is so even though sport has generated much passion sporadically, with cricket even acquiring the undertones of a religion. Cricketers have been alternately revered and hated, adored and abhorred. Sporting stars like Sachin Tendulkar have been raised to the status of demigods, as people tried to bask in the reflected glory of their cricketers.

So, what are the images of the moments and the champions that come to mind now? Let me assure you that there are hundreds of such memories and these come in random order the Indian cricket team's conquest 0f the 1983 World Cup and the ICC World Twenty20 in 2007, Vishwanath Anand's ability to win the FIDE World Chess Championship in three different formats and Abhinav Bindra's focus in becoming the first Indian individual to win an Olympic Games gold medal.

It doesn't end there. Prakash Padukone winning the All-England Badminton Championship in 1980 and the Alba World Cup in 1981, Mahesh Bhupathi and Leander Paes ruling doubles tennis in 1999, the hockey squad winning the World Cup in 1975, athlete Milkha Singh missing an Olympic medal in Rome in 1960 and billiards ace Wilson Jones becoming free India's first world champion and inspiring many generations of players to pursue excellence in the sport.

On the women's front, track queen PT Payyoli Express Usha's domination of the Asian sprints in the mid-80s, badminton star Saina Nehwal rising to be ranked second in the world, weightlifter Karnam Malleswari's bronze medal in the 2000 Olympic Games and Sania Mirza's ability to capture the collective consciousness of the nation with her show at the US Open tennis championship are all etched in the mind.

Yet, in the past decade and a hal thanks to the cable and satellite TV channels young India has veered towards celebrating overseas sportspersons and their achievements more than supporting Indian sports. Tiger Woods is so immensely popular that people do not seem to have the time for Indian golfers. Similarly, football stars in the English Premier League (EPL) are larger than life even in India. Why, a cellphone company even uses a Formula One driver to promote its products among young Indians.

Talking of Formula One, it looks like the first of the Formula One car races will be held in India next year and it will not be long before the NBA (America's National Basketball Association), EPL and other such global brands seek the Indian rupee. They are already sniffing a chance in this vast, young market and add to the challenges that most Indian sports face because of dwindling patronage.

Yet, I dream that India will become a sports conscious nation sooner than later. It is my fond desire that we will wake up someday and watch a variety of Indian sports with pride once more, rather than be taken in only by the pursuit of excellence on our television sets. It is time for us to stop being passive sports fans and start taking part in sports actively.

G Rajaraman has spent close to three decades tracking the fortunes of India's best sportspeople.