The year ahead is full of mega sporting events — the World Cup football tournament in Russia, the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Australia, the Asian Games in Jakarta, and the men’s and women’s world cup hockey tournaments. India will hope for improved performances in all these international events they are participating in. The biggest focus, of course, will be on Test cricket as India tours both South Africa and England.
On home soil, India’s record is enviable in the past two years. They have lost just one of the 23 Tests played since 2016 with 16 wins — 11 in 2017. Virat Kohli’s team can be rated as India’s finest ever if they achieve success in the three overseas tours at South Africa, England and Australia. Remember, India has never won a Test series in South Africa or Australia. With depth in the pace and spin attack, improvement in fitness and fielding, India will be hoping to scale new heights in Test cricket in 2018.
At the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games, India finished fifth overall with 64 medals, 15 gold, 30 silver and 19 bronze. At Glasgow, young Dipa Karmakar won a bronze medal in the Artistic Gymnastics. As a mature 24-year-old, Dipa is expected to win medals at the 2018 Commonwealth Games in the Gold Coast, Australia.
Badminton is another sport in which India should excel at the Commonwealth Games. At Glasgow 2014, Parupalli Kashyap bagged a surprise gold medal but fancied P.V. Sindhu got a bronze medal. Sindhu is now ranked second in the world, and India will expect a gold medal from her at the 2018 Commonwealth Games. In the men’s singles Kidambi Srikanth, the first Indian to bag four Super Series titles in a calendar year, is favoured to emulate Kashyap’s feat of four years ago. H.S. Pranoy and Sai Praneeth could also win medals. In both men’s doubles and mixed doubles, India could have a podium finish. India finished with four medals in badminton in 2014. But with the depth of talent among Indian shuttlers at present, they should win at least six medals in the Gold Coast. However, in the Asian Games, competition will be very tough. Six out of the seven top-ranked girls are from Asia, so even P.V. Sindhu (World No. 2) will have an uphill task.
In shooting, the old order is fading away and the calibre of the promising young shooters will be tested at both the Commonwealth and Asian Games. The country’s top pistol shooter, Jitu Rai, will aim for gold at both the 2018 Commonwealth and Asian Games in his favourite events 50m free pistol and 10m air pistol. Another promising pistol shooter is Amanpreet Singh, a World Cup silver medallist in 2017. The Air Force shooter, Ravi Kumar, is highly rated in the 10m air rifle event. In the double trap event, the new kid on the block is Ankur Mittal. Pooja Ghatkar (10m air rifle) and Heena Sidhu (10m air pistol event) are favoured to win medals. This new crop of shooters can win medals in both the Commonwealth and Asian Games, if they can combat pressure and fulfil their latent potential.
At the 2014 Incheon Asian Games, India got 11 gold, 10 silver and 36 bronze medals for an overall tally of 57 medals and finished eighth. To improve their medal tally, India will have to excel in athletics, shooting, tennis, boxing and wrestling. It will be a crucial year for the new crop of talented Indian participants like pugilists Gaurav Bidhuri (bronze medalist in 2017 World Championship), Neeraj Chopra (javelin throw gold medalist in the World Junior Championships), long-distance runner G. Lakshmanan and women grapplers Sakshi Malik (Olympic bronze medallist), Vinesh Phogat and Pooja Dhanda.
Sania Mirza will be bidding for her fourth successive medal in mixed doubles in the Asian Games. In Grand Slam tournaments India’s hopes for success is primarily in the mixed doubles.
For Indian hockey, 2018 is a big year with the Commonwealth Games, Asian
Games and the World Cup in Bhubaneswar, from November 24 to December 16. India’s new Dutch coach, 43-year-old Sjoerd Marijne, has altered the men’s hockey team’s style with focus on quick release of the ball and speed in attack. He has given the players a lot of freedom and wants them to be leaders on the field. But penalty corner conversions and inconsistency among the forwards are a cause of concern. Skipper Manpreet Singh is the new fulcrum in midfield, initiating attacks. India’s biggest gain has been finding two promising young goalkeepers, Akash Chitke and Suraj Karkera. Thus the absence of P.R. Sreejesh, who is recovering from a knee operation, has not been felt. Young Harmanpreet Singh has also settled down as India’s best drag flicker. Marijne’s greatest contribution has been the clever integration of junior and senior players.
With both Pakistan and South Korea on the decline, India is favoured to win back-to-back gold medals in men’s hockey in the Asian Games. In the 2018 Commonwealth Games, India could finish runners-up for the third successive time as beating hosts Australia on their home soil is a tall order. Coach Marijne has also targeted a semi-final finish in the World Cup in Bhubaneswar. If these targets are met, then Indian hockey is on the ascendancy in 2018.
The women’s hockey team won the Asia Cup in Japan after 13 years in 2017, beating higher-ranked opponents South Korea, Japan and China. India relies on skipper Rani Ramphal, and drag flicker Gurjant Kaur for goals. Coach Harendra hopes for medals in the 2018 Asian Games and the Commonwealth Games as the team is more settled and cohesive. The problem for both the men’s and women’s hockey team is they will have to peak thrice for major international tournaments and will have to use their bench strength effectively.
Professional boxing in India has taken off due to Vijender Singh’s charisma. In 2018, his career is at the crossroads. His promoters IOS need to take some hard decisions. 32-year-old Vijender should compete against top-ranked boxers sooner as his reflexes could slow down. A bout against Britain’s Luke Blackledge for the Commonwealth Super Middleweight title is expected in March 2018. #KhabarLive