The Indian Sports Ministry on Friday announced the list of athletes to be conferred with the National Sports Awards. The five Khel Ratna winners for the year 2020 would be star cricketer Rohit Sharma, wrestler Vinesh Phogat, Paralympic gold-winner Mariyappan Thangavelu, Table tennis player Manika Batra, and women's hockey team captain Rani Rampal, the ministry confirmed in a formal press release. In a first, the awards will be held virtually on August 29, the National Sports Day, instead of the Rashtrapati Bhavan this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
This year's awards will be remembered for multiple reasons and one of them would be five players to be awarded the Khel Ratna in the same year for the first time. The Khel Ratna is also historically significant because for the first time a table tennis player would be bestowed with the award. Manika is India's first woman paddler to win a singles gold medal at the Commonwealth Games. She achieved the feat in the 2018 edition in which she won as many four medals including two gold medals.
Manika Batra at the Commonwealth Games in 2018
In the same edition held in Gold Coast, the 24-year-old had led India to its first-ever women's team gold at the Commonwealth Games. Five months later, the current world No. 63 created more history by winning a mixed doubles bronze alongside Sharath Kamal at the Asian Games in Jakarta. Her stupendous performances that year rightly earned her the Arjuna Award in 2018. What felt over the line was the decision to confer her with a Khel Ratna award for the same achievements that earned her an Arjuna award two years ago.
The year 2018 was a season of many firsts for Manika Batra, which saw her breakthrough accomplishments. Soon, she became a household name in the country with young girls looking up to her to become successful in the sport. However, soon after a gratifying season, came the reality check. Starting 2019 with bash by reaching the pre-quarterfinals of the Hungarian Open gave Manika her career-best ranking of world No. 47, a string of inconsistent performances pegged back the Delhi girl.
Parting ways with her childhood coach Sandeep Gupta at the end of 2018 was also seen as a reason behind her poor show. Doubts were raised on her ability to win more accolades for the country after she was defeated by young Archana Kamath in the Ultimate Table Tennis (UTT) league. Her ranking dropped to 76th in the world in August 2019 and a sense of uneasiness gripped her, forcing her to shift her training base to Pune. She started training with her sparring partner Sanmay Paranjape and Anukram Jain.
In the Olympic team qualifiers this year, Hopes of the Indian women were ignited with Manika and Sutirtha Mukherjee taking turns to beat World No. 19 Bernadette Szocs. In the deciding rubber, the then 61st-ranked Manika suffered a stunning defeat at the hands of World No. 134 Daniela Monteiro Dodean. In her last tournament in February this year, Manika showed nerves of steel on her way to upsetting the world No 26 Chen Szu-Yu at the 2020 Hungarian Open. However, in the pre-quarter round, her attacking mindset was nowhere to be seen against World no. 11 Miu Hirano of Japan and she failed to reach the quarters after a stunning defeat.
As of April this year, Manika Batra has inched her way up the rankings to 63rd position, climbing up 16 places - she was 79th in September - in seven months. Of course, Manika still has plenty of years of her career to showcase her talent and take her game to the next level, but was her winning the Khel Ratna justifiable when the veteran of the game Achanta Sharath Kamal has not bagged won the same?
Undoubtedly, one of the finest ever paddlers to have graced the game in India, 37-year-old Achanta Sharath Kamal holds many a first in the history of Indian table tennis. Currently ranked 31 (as in April 2020), he has won the National Table Tennis Championship a record nine times. A three-time Olympian, Sharath won the men's singles gold at 2006 Commonwealth Games. He is also the first Indian to lift the men's singles trophy on the ITTF World Tour and is also the only TT player to have won Padma Shri, the fourth highest civilian award in India. In March, Sharath beat World No.28 and former top 10 player Marcos Freitas 4-2 to win the Oman Open, which was his second ITTF pro tour title that came a whole decade after he won his (and the country's ) first in Egypt in 2010.
If Sharath's achievements are taken into consideration, one cannot overlook the plethora of achievements posted by other renowned athletes in their disciplines. The list of cricketers is long in itself, including Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid, Anil Kumble, Mithali Raj and Jhulan Goswami. Followed by Sunil Chhetri in football; Sarita Devi in boxing; Neeraj Chopra in athletics; Saurabh Chaudhury, Manu Bhaker and Anjum Moudgil in shooting, Dipika Kumari in archery. With the five names added this year, the total tally of India's Khel Ratna awardee stands at 43. The objective of the award is to recognize the spectacular and most outstanding performance in the field of sports by a sportsperson over four years immediately preceding the year during which the award is to be given.
Manika Batra's Khel Ratna Award is solely based upon her performances in 2018. Also, this is not for the first time, a controversy walked hand in hand with the national sports award. A whopping 29 sportspersons were recommended for the Arjuna while a strong five athletes were also suggested for country's highest sporting honour Khel Ratna in a non-Olympic year. The grievances with the committee don't end here as various athletes have expressed their disappointment on their coaches being ignored for the Dronacharya award. One can still argue that each of the names that have been listed for 2020 national awards is champions in their own right and deserves the recognition, but with the self-nomination online procedure to come in effect from next year it would possibly increase nominations, will the new committee continue with this new trend and make the awards less meaningful.