Indian sports fans had plenty to cheer for over a week as Pusarla Venkata Sindhu, Indian cricket and hockey teams were out-performing to be world beaters.
Sindhu got over her self-doubts to win a major title by beating all those who have been harassing her for long to win the season-ending World Badminton Tour Finals.
The cricket team could not consolidate the 1-0 lead in the four-Test series against Australia by losing the second Test at Perth while the hockey team was left with the consolation of drawing their pool match 2-2 with eventual winners Belgium and losing 1-2 to the other finalists the Netherlands in the quarter-finals.
For over a year Sindhu had not won a championship and she was out of the top five in the rankings. She was also dogged by the mental block of having not beaten World No. 1 Tai Tzu Ying after her victory over the Chine Taipei girl at the Rio Olympics two years ago.
During this period, she was beaten by her six times. Finally, she showed amazing court craft to go with her determination in overcoming Tai Tzu in the Group of Death where she also had to deal with the doggedly defensive Japanese Akane Yamaguchi who had beaten the Indian in the last year’s final.
Once she was through with the top two players of the world, Sindhu looked more comfortable in beating another sticky customer, Ratanchok Intanon of Thailand, in the semis before settling a score with another Japanese Nozomi Okuhara who had beaten her in the World Championships final last year.
Sindhu also avenged her loss against Tai Tzu at the Jakarta Asian Games final. She was also the beaten finalist to Spaniard Carlina Marin at the world championships. These defeats raised doubts about her temperament.
To add to her woes, she found it difficult to cope with the smart play of Saina Nehwal, losing to her twice, at the nationals and at the Commonwealth Games.
One big difference in her clashes with the top players is she could sort out Yamaguchi, beating her five times since her last loss whereas she had no clue as to what to do with Tai Tzu for such a long time.
After beating Tai Tzu, Sindhu said she was prepared to play her again in the final, but that did not happen as the world’s top shuttler failed to make it.
Whether it was just to psyche herself up or to announce a change in her game plan, Sindhu did say before the event in Guangzhou that she was well-drilled to win the championship this time.
This long-awaited victory should be the turning point in Sindhu’s run-up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, beginning with the 2019 calendar. Both Sindhu and her coach Gopichand may have chased away all apprehensions about her ability to win big.
The Indian cricket team may have lost the second Test at the brand new Perth Stadium, but it was the Australians who thought of declaring their second innings to protect their bowlers from the fiery Indian pacers, something Bishan Bedi did in 1976 at Kingston, Jamaica, when he declared the Indian innings at 97 for five with Anshuman Gaekwad, Brijesh Patel and Gundappa Viswanath already hurt badly while batting and he and Bhagwat Chandrasekhar were injured in the field.
By all accounts, it was the usual Perth pitch, but what prompted coach Justin Langer to say after the match that he seriously thought of declaring Australia’s second innings to save his bowlers from injury, never mind the last-wicket pair Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood added 30 priceless runs to psychologically knock the Indians out of the match after Australia lost four wickets in 15 balls for three runs.
Mohammad Shami looked so ferocious, taking six wickets. Luckily he did not have to face a ball as Umesh Sood, Ishant Sharma and Jaspirt Bumrah perished backing off to short-pitched stuff while the formalities were being gone through in the closing stages of the Test.
Suddenly, the Indians were unable to figure out road ahead, though skipper Virat Kohli sounded confident of fighting back. He is one batsman who looked the most competent to bat on the Perth pitch, scoring a hundred in the first innings. What tilted the Test in Australia’s favour was the century opening stand in the first innings between Marcus Harris and Aaron Finch.
They have a problem with the team selection for the Boxing Day Test. The openers are in a mess and Mayank Agarwal will come in for either Murali Vijay, Lokesh Rahul. Hardik Pandya will also join the squad to make it 19-strong. Already, there is a talk of asking Hanuma Vihari to open, seeing his technique to deal with pace, and whether to bring in Pandya in place of Umesh Yadav in preference to Rohit Sharma at No 6 to accommodate a spinner.
Kohli and coach Ravi Shastri are never short of ideas. Like they did in Perth by playing four fast bowlers instead of playing Ravindra Jadeja of Kuldeep Yadav, they could come up with another surprise at Melbourne. They might even ask Rohit to open with Mayank. Plenty to ponder about, Merry Christmas!
Playing the Hockey World Cup at home proved to be as miserable for the Indians as playing anywhere else. They played tough matches with both Belgium and the Dutch and naturally felt they could have gone further than the quarter-finals.
Like some of his predecessors, a despondent coach Harendra Singh blamed the umpiring for the defeat against the Dutch and was rightly reprimanded. These days the review system corrects umpiring goof-ups, but Harendra was unhappy with India playing with 10 men in the last quarter when Rohit Das was benched for 10 minutes, but when the Indians were unfairly tackled there was no reaction.
Belgium deserves to be the champions after their steady rise over a decade. They clearly looked the team to beat. Two powerhouses Australia and Germany also had an unforgettable World Cup.
The question is: Will Harendra be replaced by a foreign coach? No, he should not be, he deserves an extension as many of the players have come along with him from his days as junior India coach.
(Veturi Srivatsa is a senior journalist. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached at email@example.com)