Perhaps in 2011, the new generation of sportspersons will scale greater heights.
Indians have a remarkable gift for isolating the silver lining from the cloud, for recognising the positive in a slew of disappointments, for cheering ourselves up with consolation prizes after the main prizes have been taken. This works at two levels. At the national level we tell ourselves that despite the 2G scam, the Commonwealth Games scams, the moral turpititude of politicians, bureaucrats, army top brass, judges, journalists, policemen, we look at the year gone by and marvel at some of our sporting achievements. It is the consolation prize.
At another level, within sports itself, there have been disappointments, especially in team games but in defeat we point to individual performances and pat ourselves on the back.
The most resounding example was the recording of Sachin Tendulkar's fiftieth Test century in the midst of a crushing defeat in the first Test in South Africa. There is something almost existential in this choice. Yes, we were outplayed, our planning needed to be questioned, we lacked the fight of the number one team in the world. But so what? Tendulkar made a century!
The bad old days
This is a harking back to the days when Indian cricket had few triumphs, yet the individual players became national icons for what they did in defeat. Australians thrash us 4-0? Ah! But did you see Vijay Hazare's century in each innings! England win every Test of a series convincingly? Yes, but Sunil Gavaskar at Old Trafford — what an innings!
Thanks to our poor record internationally, the individual sportsman has been deified, his achievements put on a par with those of our freedom fighters and empire builders. The cry for awarding the Bharat Ratna to Tendulkar is of a piece with this thinking. It grew louder towards the end of the year, and it will not take long for the government to realise they have been presented with a wonderful opportunity to make a popular decision and demonstrate how young at heart all those septuagenarians and octogenarians ruling us are.
India's shooters, wrestlers and boxers might have progressed as a team, but our successes in international sport continued to be dependent on the individual performers. Anand, Pankaj Advani, Gagan Narang, Abhinav Bindra, Saina Nehwal.
The manner in which the two biggest names, Anand and Tendulkar, performed in the year merely endorsed their claims to being among the greatest in their respective sports. Anand's win over Vessely Topalav in the world championship in Sofia and his number one world ranking is a little difficult for the average Indian sports fan to get his head around. No live coverage. No artificial pumping up of events. No scams. No arrogant pronouncements. No jingoistic speeches. Just a top class professional at work away from the manufactured hype of our media. Anand probably earns more than our cricketers do, he lives abroad, and is our most intelligent and articulate sportsman. There is a calm around him which militates against ill-informed hoopla and that is his greatest advantage.
Anand turned 41 at the end of the year; by chess standards he continues to be in the prime. Tendulkar is 37, and although batting as if he is in the prime too, sports fans must prepare for a generational change. Perhaps not immediately, not even in the next year, but soon enough.
Making of memories
Those in their 20s and 30s, brought up on the exploits of these men and others like Rahul Dravid, V.V.S Laxman, Leander Paes, Mahesh Bhupathi, know that a chunk of their youth is about to be converted into memory.
The replacements aren't immediately apparent, although a Saina Nehwal or a Pankaj Advani have already done enough to suggest that the new generation is not just ready and willing but capable too. But they come up against national perceptions. Badminton is probably the most popular participatory sport in India, popular in housing colonies, side roads, backyards, schools — yet a badminton champion can never hope to replace a cricketing icon; nor indeed can a billiards hero. Prakash Padukone, Sunil Gavaskar's contemporary in the 1970s was held in great awe but that was the exception.
Despite the medal tally at two multi-event competitions like the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games, the fact remains that on the world stage these counted for little. Individual athletes performed well — but by Indian, not world standards, and if we remain content with that, then we fall into the trap earlier generations have. That of being too easily satisfied. We must set our sights higher.
Saina Nehwal's determination, her focus and her record make her a candidate for the sportsperson of the year, although it might be difficult to look beyond Tendulkar's centuries and one-day international's first double century authored by him.
By coming back from 0-2 down to beat Brazil and re-enter the Davis Cup world group, India's tennis stars gave us something to celebrate. Somdev Devvarman and Rohan Bopanna were outstanding, but they run into Serbia in the first match next year. India have nothing to lose since Serbia are the defending champions, so that match will be followed avidly.
We spoke earlier of sportsmen leaving the scene and carrying with them portions of our own selves. Sports officials, however, don't want to disappoint us by retiring in the same way. Despite strictures from the Sports Ministry which resurrected their own guidelines for officials, we are likely to see the same lot of faces doing the same lot of things in the near future at least.
And that has been an important message from 2010: men may come and men may go but the Kalmadis, the Bhanots, the Malhotras and the rest plan to go on forever. By hook, or more likely, by crook. Perhaps the media focus on these men and others like them, including those in the Board of Control for Cricket in India, might see changes in attitude if not in moral and financial probity. But somehow I doubt that.
Where officialdom is concerned, we reverse the process, aware of the cloud contained within the silver lining.