R Praggnanandhaa, Neeraj Chopra, H S Prannoy | Photos: AFP and PTI
It was probably one of the most memorable weeks in the history of Indian sports. Three podium finishes as it were, one earning the gold, another settling for silver and the third gaining a bronze, all historic moments for all Indian fans to savour and rejoice. We are talking of none other than that javelin wonder Neeraj Chopra, chess wizard R. Praggnanandhaa or Praggu for short, and badminton star H S Prannoy. All finishing in that order on the podium, so to say in different high-end settings.
Everything started with that wonder boy Praggu. After Viswanathan Anand who used to be the question asked in Indian chess at one time. The former world champion and perhaps the best-known name not just in chess but Indian sports as a whole, Anand was a class by himself. Dedication, fixity of purpose and sheer hard work brought him from the rudimentary stage to rise and become one of the world’s best! It was a fascinating journey and the great man has by his deeds inspired a legion of young minds into the sport. What is more, there are now over 80 Grand Masters in India each vying to be not just the best but good enough to be alongside the name Anand! And it is here that Praggu has proved that he is a worthy heir apparent to the King of Indian chess.
At the FIDE World cup chess held in Baku, Azerbaijan in the midst of 200 best minds in the world, 18-year-old Praggu rose to become the challenger to the top spot against the world number one Magnus Carlsen, the man who had taken away the world champion crown from Anand a decade ago. Over two games the Indian prodigy held the famed rival to draw before succumbing in the tie-breaker. But that didn’t matter in the final analysis for by reaching the summit clash he had made history besides winning the hearts of millions. Imagine one so young with such a gigantic deed to his name! At age 6 he had been an Asian Champion and at age 18 now runner up to the foremost player in the world of chess today, Carlsen. It is a different matter that Praggu had had three wins over Carlsen in tournaments earlier. That only proved the class of this boy from Chennai. As Anand himself observed after the Baku event, the young lad must have been ‘fatigued’ for he had been through several other tournaments in the run up to Baku. But the chess legend was clear, “we are seeing a new star”. With the Candidates event ahead for the world championship and Praggu having qualified, there is much more awaited from this brilliant mind.
Away in Copenhagen around this time was another man of intent, not so young but fiercely competitive wanting to make a mark. Prannoy was battling out as much as his tiring limbs could sustain. That was good enough to keep Indian badminton history continuing with a medal in the BWF World championship. Having seen his other mates fail in this hugely prestigious event, Prannoy dug in and beating world number one Viktor Axelsen of Denmark and world number nine Loh Kean Yew of Singapore, both world champions, proved the hallmark of his resolute display as he crossed the quarterfinal stage to ensure a medal, a bronze it was to be. Prannoy did not go past the semi-final but the bronze medal he won ensured India could extend its record of having one medallist from the world championship since 2011. He also became the fifth Indian medallist on the men’s side. Kidambi Srikanth, Lakshya Sen, B. Sai Praneeth and Prakash Padukone were the earlier men’s medallists in this showpiece event.
And the joy continued and perhaps reached a crescendo in Budapest when Neeraj in keeping with his high-profile reputation clinched what was the country’s first gold medal in the world athletics championship. It was Indian sports’ best moment in recent times. A year ago in Tokyo he had hurdled the javelin for what was India’s first gold in athletics in the Olympics. Sheer consistency, determination and hard work had brought him to this level. In the end what must be nagging his mind is his inability still to touch the 90 m mark. He had touched 88.17 m in Budapest. Many had expected him to touch or get past 90 m in the World championship but as they say, one needs to be pushed to bring out the best. Perhaps Neeraj needs to wait for that but there is no doubt, something big should be in the offing as the Asian Games is just weeks away and there is the Paris Olympics next year.
Think of Praggu and Neeraj and wonder how circumstances had helped them on a course to fame and fandom. Praggu was weaned away from his addiction of cartoon-watching on television by his sister R, Vaishali, a women’s chess grandmaster herself and the rest as they say has been history! Similarly, Neeraj in his younger days was a chubby lad loaded with mischief. Lured away to a stadium to put him to some running routine to shed his flab, Neeraj took a liking to the Javelin and now the world has seen what wonders can happen! Not only does the 25-year old from Haryana have an enviable sculpted physique but a golden arm that is set to make him an icon in his own right in Indian sports. Already his brand value is such that he has put even the much visible cricketing stars in the shade. What is more, Neeraj has also dislodged the legendary sprinter Usain Bolt as the most ‘visible’ and ‘written about’ athlete in the world.
Rarely does a writer get an opportunity to describe in glowing terms the happenings in the Indian sporting scene but this has been a rare occasion, something that should auger well as more international events approach with hopes and aspirations running high.