New Delhi: Cricketers broke a 28-year-old jinx to lift the coveted World Cup and the glamorous world of Formula One raised a toast to its newest pit-stop as India rose meteorically in the international sports arena in an eventful 2011. Asian Games double gold-medallist Ashwini Akkunji and her 4x400m relay teammates Sini Jose and Mandeep Kaur were among the dope offenders after being caught for using banned steroids in May and June. (Agencies)
The progress graph headed north despite a few setbacks as Indian sports fans celebrated moments which were mere dreams till not so long ago.
The biggest of them for the cricket-mad nation was the triumph of Mahendra Singh Dhoni's men at the World Cup, which was jointly hosted by three sub-continental countries. They were expected to do well in home conditions but not many considered India to be good enough to repeat the feat of Kapil's Devils of 1983.
But they did just that in front of a packed Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai on April 2, sending the entire nation into delirious celebrations.
Although the whitewash in all three formats of the game at the hands of England in a three-month long tour came as a reality check for them, the year 2011 would be remembered more for the World Cup triumph than anything else as far as Indian cricket is concerned.
The World Cup triumph was also a momentous day for a certain Sachin Tendulkar, who was making his sixth and probably the last appearance in the showpiece event. The much-admired veteran batsman, however, continued to wait for an elusive personal milestone -- his 100th international century.
The 99th ton came in a World Cup match in March but the 100th proved elusive through the year even as the aggressive Virender Sehwag managed to emulate Tendulkar's feat of an ODI double hundred.
Away from cricket, soccer superstar Lionel Messi touched down India to enthrall the crazy fans of Kolkata with some Messimania in September.
After much speculation over will-he-or-won't-he, the Argentina and Barcelona wunderkind kept his date with the soccer-crazy city, leading his nation for the first time, against Venezuela, in an international friendly match in front of a packed Yuva Bharati Krirangan.
The game, part of a push to turn the country into one of the world's major soccer powers despite a dismal international ranking, was telecast live in 150 countries and the nimble-footed striker did not disappoint, playing for full 90 minutes and orchestrating the lone goal of the match.
A month later, the cash-awash Formula One carnival made a pit-stop at Greater Noida, in the National Capital Region, where speed fans were treated to the sight of cars racing at 350kph at the newly-constructed Buddh International Circuit.
It was a never-felt-before thrill for Indian racing aficionados, who came out in hordes to witness what was truly a historic day for Indian sports.
Leaving aside the minor glitches not uncommon to any first-time host, India's F1 tryst was a massive success with drivers -- from Lewis Hamilton to Sebastian Vettel to German veteran Michael Schumacher -- going back home mighty impressed with facilities and mesmerised by the sights and sounds of a colourful nation.
But amid the ecstasy in the Indian sports scene, there was some agony too as a few controversies played spoilsport. There was the never-ending power struggle in hockey which led to the country losing the hosting rights of the Champions Trophy, the bickering between the Sports Ministry and Indian Olympic Association over their respective spheres of influence and the usual dope scandals that ended the Olympic dreams of a few top athletes.
The first half of the year was spent celebrating Indian cricket's biggest moment of glory before other sports began grabbing the headlines with the start of Olympic qualifiers in various disciplines.
Amid the hype surrounding cricket, the shooters quietly went about their job with seven of them joining last year's two in qualifying for next year's London Olympics.
While Gagan Narang and Hariom Singh had booked their tickets to London last year itself, Beijing Olympics gold medallist Abhinav Bindra, Guangzhou Asian Games gold winner Ronjan Sodhi, Sanjeev Rajput, Vijay Kumar, Rahi Sarnobat, Annu Raj Singh and Shagun Chowdhary assured themselves of a berth in the biggest sporting extravaganza, this year.
In fact, with shooting's profile heading north, the numbers surely are not going to stop at nine as more quota places will be up for grabs in the Asian Shooting Championship in January next year.
In another cause for celebration in Indian shooting, Narang was bestowed the country's highest sporting honour -- the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna Award -- while double trap marksman Sodhi reached yet another milestone in his decorated career, as he was ranked number one in the world.
In athletics, Krishna Poonia (women's discus throw), Tintu Luka (women's 800m), Mayookha Johny (women's triple jump), Gurmeet Singh (men's 20km walk), Om Prakash Karhana (men's shot put) started their Olympic preparations after achieving qualifying marks even though the sport itself was tarnished by dope shame.
After a rewarding 2010, athletics slumped to a low, turning out to be the country's dirtiest sport with seven top athletes, including three Commonwealth and Asian Games gold medallists, getting involved in one of India's biggest doping scandals.
They were handed one-year bans by a National Anti-Doping Agency panel, virtually ending their London Olympics dreams and more than that turning them into villains from stars they were last year.
Besides the trio, top quartermilers Priyanka Panwar, Jauna Murmu and Tiana Mary Thomas were also handed reduced penalties of one-year bans while long jumper Hari Krishnan was suspended for two years.
But the boxers continued their ascending march as four of them qualified for the Olympics. The 19-year-old duo of L Devendro Singh (49kg) and Vikas Krishan (69kg), along with Jai Bhagwan (60kg) and Manoj Kumar (64kg) booked their London Games tickets at the World Championships in September.
Among them, Vikas, also an Asian Games gold-medallist, went a step further and grabbed a bronze medal to ensure that India did not return empty-handed from the big event.
In badminton, Saina Nehwal's form took a tumble for most part of the year due to a nagging ankle injury but the determined Hyderabadi ace managed to round it off impressively by becoming the first Indian to reach the final of the World Super Series. She lost in the summit clash but promised a strong season next year after patching up with mentor P Gopichand within months of a split that baffled many.
It was yet again a tale of administrative chaos in hockey with the bitter feud over who runs the sport in the country expectedly taking precedence over the sport itself.
The FIH-recognised Hockey India (HI) continued to battle it out with the de-recognised Indian Hockey Federation (IHF) for the control of the sport despite Sports Ministry's efforts at brokering peace between the two bodies.
The result, India lost the hosting rights of Champions Trophy, and a proposed cash-rich league to revive the fans' interest in hockey was postponed.
The national hockey team itself performed in patches, winning the Asian Champions Trophy but losing in the final of Champions Challenge I and with it a chance to participate in next year's Champions Trophy gone. In between, a new coach -- Australian Michael Nobbs -- took over the reins of the team replacing much-harried Spaniard Jose Brasa.
Elsewhere, a 17-year-old Deepika Kumari was mostly on target as she rose to become India's next big archery sensation after the much-fancied men's team performed way below expectations.
By stunning world champions Korea in the semifinals of the biennial World Championships, the trio of Deepika, Laishram Bombayla Devi and Chekrovolu Swuro not only grabbed full quota berths for London Olympics but also became favourites to win a first-ever archery medal for the country in the mega-event next year.
The 2009 cadet world champion Deepika became the first Indian to clinch back-to-back world titles when she won the junior women's individual recurve, capping the year with two dozen international medals (two gold, six silver and four bronze).
Among men, amid a flop show by Tarundeep Rai and Rahul Banerjee, Jayanta Talukdar stood tall earning his Olympic quota place in the individual recurve event. The men's team will have its last chance of bagging quota places when they compete in the Stage 3 of the World Cup in June, just a month before London Olympics.
In tennis, it was a story of a reunion and two splits. Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi reunited after nine years only to split up within months. In their bid to get an Olympic medal in the London Games, Paes and Bhupathi decided to play the season together but it all ended on a sour note as their split also led to separation of the immensely successful Indo-Pak team of Rohan Bopanna and Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi.
Bhupathi is set to partner Bopanna in the coming season, running up to the Olympics, and it remains to be seen how they would shape up in London. Paes, meanwhile, is likely to start the year with Serb Janko Tipsarevic in the Chennai Open after which he will play Tour events with Radek Stepanek.
But in the final analysis, there are enough reasons to smile considering that minor sports are bringing major laurels for the country and the world is slowly waking up to the potential of India as a sporting powerhouse, the biggest evidence of this being the coming of big international events here.
The average fan's expectations may touch new highs in the Olympic year, with Indian shooters, boxers, archers and even tennis players can have a decent shot at medals.
New Delhi: Cricketers broke a 28-year-old jinx to lift the coveted World Cup and the glamorous world of Formula One raised a toast to its newest pit-stop as India rose meteorically in the international sports arena in an eventful 2011.
Asian Games double gold-medallist Ashwini Akkunji and her 4x400m relay teammates Sini Jose and Mandeep Kaur were among the dope offenders after being caught for using banned steroids in May and June.