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National Sports Day: What are the real success stories of Indian sports?

We have witnessed greatness over the years in Indian sports but a few athletes have shone brighter than the rest. These are the ones who have paved the way for others

Sachin Tendulkar
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Sachin Tendulkar paved the way for Indian cricket on the way to becoming arguably the greatest cricketer of all time

By

Ananth Narasimman

Updated: 2021-08-31T00:00:21+05:30

Indian sports has seen a rapid rise over the years, and thanks to multiple factors, we have witnessed consistent greatness with athletes dominating the domestic and world stage. However, there are a certain few, a select bunch of heroes, who have etched their names in the history books, making sure that their legacies would shine brighter long after they are gone. They toiled, taken risks to beat the odds, conquered most challenges thrown their way with courage and dedication and put their bodies on the line while wearing their heart on their sleeves. Most importantly, they gave it their all, intending to be the best version of themselves that they could be so that they could make sure that India's Tri-Colours could be hoisted with pride among the world's best. These athletes are our country's pride and joy while also being trail-blazers in their sports, paving the way for future success. Here are our very own avengers.

1) Dhyan Chand

Any list with the greatest Indian sports stars would seem to be incomplete without the legendary Dhyan Chand. The former Indian hockey team captain is hands down the greatest ever Indian export to grab a stick. His 23-year dominance in the sport culminating in three Olympic gold medals for his country will always be a huge part of the lore of Indian hockey.
Born in modern-day Uttar Pradesh, Dhyan Chand's persistence and dedication to outshine the best in the world helped put Indian hockey on the world map. The second-generation Indian Army officer wore his country's colours with pride and gave it his all every time he stepped on the field. He led from the front and motivated his team to beat the odds irrespective of what situation they find themselves in. He was quick as lightning and had tremendous dribbling skills was pure magic, as he bamboozled his opponents with mesmerizing control of the ball, earning him the nickname 'Hockey ka Jaadugar' (Magician of hockey).
Dhyan Chand's mastery over the game, combined with his immense love for his country, helped him propel Indian hockey into the upper echelons in the sport. Scoring 570 goals in 185 appearances is something only an elite few can manage, especially at a time when the sport was a lot more physical. He would forever be known as one of the greatest if not the greatest Indian sports stars ever.

2) Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar

November 15th 1989, is the day Indian cricket forever changed as a certain then 16-year-old made his debut against the country's arch-rivals Pakistan. To be selected in a key series at such a young age took people by surprise, but the brave decision taken by the former President of the BCCI, Raj Singh Dungarpur, paved the way for the debut of the greatest batsmen to ever play the game. Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar, a name no Indian could ever forget, a name chanted by billions, and a hero that has inspired countless others after him, like Virat Kohli, to be the best.
The 'Master-Blaster' earned his nickname as he annihilated world-class bowling attacks and frustrated legends such as Glen Mcgrath, Shane Warne, Wasim Akram, Muttiah Muralidharan and Shoaib Akthar. His trademark cover drive is reminiscent of watching a brilliant artist at work. His legendary style of play, despite his diminutive stature, is an inspiration for generations to come as they try to model their game after their idol. He led from the front when Indian cricket was in turmoil and held the fort down admirably, winning matches single-handedly for his team during those phases.
The 2011 Indian Cricket Team recognized his effort and took inspiration from it as they gave it their all to win the World Cup as a tribute to their idol. Such was Sachin's impact that his team wanted to win it for him and his contributions that went beyond the stat sheet. Tendulkar retired, amassing a staggering 18426 runs at an average of 44.83 while smashing 49 hundreds and 96 fifties in ODI's while scoring a record 15921 runs at an average of 53.78 with 51 hundreds in Test Cricket.

3) Milkha Singh

Few people get the privilege of getting entrenched in our memories as stories of their exploits are glorified in popular culture. "Bhaag Milkha Bhaag" are lines that we can never forget, not because of the Farhan Akthar movie, but the legendary athlete it was based on. Milkha Singh kicked down doors as the 'Flying Sikh' flew past all the obstacles and added pressure thrown at him on the way to becoming the greatest Indian track athlete.
Witnessing his parent's and siblings deaths during the partition had a huge impact on him as he considered being a dacoit at one point in his life. His brother, Malkhan's advice to join the Indian Army changed his life and introduced him to the sport that would forever change the trajectory of his life and the country's fortune on the track. Milkha Singh dominated the sport as he clinched four golds at the Asian games and a gold at the Commonwealth games.
However, his biggest regret was finishing fourth during the 400m race at the 1960 Rome Olympics. He went into the Olympics in blistering form and as one of the favourites after defeating most of the medal contenders apart from Otis Davis. His iconic sprint had him leading for most of the race till a vital mental slip at the 250 mark, where he slowed down, thinking he could not sustain the pace. This slip, according to Milkha Singh, cost him a medal and would remain his worst memory. However, he set a new Olympic track record and is the only Indian to do so. If not for the slip, he would have earned us an Olympic medal in a sport that is not our forte to date.
Going that close, especially when our training facilities and other aspects were at their nascent stage, is no mean feat. This required an athlete with courage, persistence and unreal determination. Milkha Singh had these qualities in abundance, inspiring the next generation of athletes to go for glory irrespective of their circumstances. Neeraj Chopra's gold medal and dedication to Milkha Singh proved how much he meant to our nation and us.

4) Vishwanathan Anand

The Chennai born chess grandmaster has dominated the game for more than a decade by beating some of the best in the world with relative ease in some games. His exploits made him a household name that will resonate through the ages, encouraging other young chess players to follow his path. Anand plays the game with a savvy that has never been seen before from an Indian, helping him become the first grandmaster from India. The 5-time World champion is also one of the few players to surpass an Elo rating of 2800, a feat that he first achieved in 2006.

5) MC Mary Kom

'Magnificent Mary' sticks true to her nickname, as the six-time World champion and Olympic bronze medalist continues her storied legacy. The incumbent Member of Parliament from Manipur has dominated the sport of boxing on her way to becoming one of the best to ever step into a ring. Her willpower and dedication to outwork her opponents is something that the future generation of athletes will look at closely to pick up pointers. Her 2012 Olympic campaign, where she won bronze, is a moment for the ages as she cemented her name in the history books. Her ability to stay calm under immense pressure and not give up is something very few athletes attain. Mary Kom is truly one of one as her tenacity and ferocity can never be replicated.

6) Saina Nehwal

The former world number one opened the floodgates for the success of Indian badminton by winning the bronze at the Olympics. The Haryanvi broke the dominance of China by defeating Wang Xin in the bronze medal match, which in turn allowed other Indian badminton stars like Sindhu to follow suit.
Saina has racked up medals and trophies at a rapid pace, as she played the sport with a ferocity and hunger that has never been seen before. Her aggressive style of play stems from her desire to win irrespective of the circumstances. The guidance of legendary badminton player Pullela Gopichand helped her hone her skills from a nascent stage in Hyderabad.
What made Saina stand out from the rest was not only her talent but her desire to beat the best while improving to be the best version of herself. Saina Nehwal is a name we are not going to forget anytime soon as we tell the next generation of stories about her exploits.

7) Pusarla Venkata Sindhu

PV Sindhu is yet another mentee of the legendary Gopichand and is one of India's brightest and greatest badminton stars. The 26-year-old created history in Basel in 2019, when she became the first Indian to become a Badminton World Champion. The Hyderabadi racked up titles with her calm yet ferocious style of play as she convincingly beat the best in the world on her way to establishing herself as one of the greatest Indian exports to ever play the sport.
The highlight of her growing career and reputation as a big-game player is when she claimed silver in the 2016 Olympics, missing the gold by a whisker as she lost to top seed Carolina Marin after a tough fight in an 83-minute match. She followed that up with a bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics this year, where she beat the world number 9 He Bingjiao. PV Sindhu has the chance to cement her legacy as the greatest Indian badminton player as she guns for gold at the 2024 Paris Olympics.

8) Pullela Gopichand

The Chief National Coach of the Indian badminton team is a former Asian Championships bronze medalist. Gopichand is a key reason for the rise of Indian badminton, as he mentored the likes of Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu and played a major role in their rapid rise. His dedication and passion for the sport birthed the Gopichand academy in Hyderabad, mortgaging his own house in the process. His academy produced several stars such as Sindhu, Saina, Sai Praneeth, Gurusai Datt and Parupalli Kashyap.

9) Mahendra Singh Dhoni

The former Indian captain and World Cup winner led his team to multiple series wins and trophies. His calm demeanour rubbed off on his teammates as they held their nerves to deliver in the clutch moments. MSD made a name for himself as one of the most ruthless finishers in the game, ending matches with a six more often than not. His signature helicopter shot is a sight to behold as it got us off our seats while jumping with joy and excitement.
Dhoni's lasting legacy will be his ability to make certain decisions for the betterment of the team irrespective of the backlash he faces, whether it was in terms of dropping seasoned veterans for fitness issues or reprimanding a younger player for indiscipline. Captain cool was a colossal figure behind the stumps and the curtains as he spoke his mind frankly while keeping his emotions in check.
With a winning percentage of 59.52, Mahendra Singh Dhoni will go down in history as the most successful captain in Indian history. His legacy extends beyond the stat sheet as decisions like preferring young stars with hunger over seasoned veterans with clout, emphasising on selecting good fielders to put pressure on the opponents and most importantly, leading from the front while practising what he preached.

10) Sania Mirza

When she retires, Sania Mirza will go down as the greatest female Indian Tennis player to ever play the sport. The former doubles world number one has broken down multiple doors that paved the way for future stars to shine. Her legacy will not alone be defined by her exploits on the court, as she stuck to her ground and persevered irrespective of both external and internal pressure to be the best. The ability to shut the white noise out and zone in has always been one of her most admirable qualities, which led to multiple Grand Slam wins.
Her personality off the court translated to performances on the court as the fierce Hyderabadi, who wears her emotions on her sleeve, put her heart on soul into mastering her craft. Despite anti-patriotic chants raised against her, Sania has always taken pride in getting the job done and making sure that she makes her country proud, carrying herself with class both on and off the court.

11) Abhinav Bindra

Abhinav Bindra is the brightest example of why betting on yourself can create wonders. Bindra was the first Indian shooter to claim an Olympic and World Championship Gold in concurrent years. He bet on himself and trained for prolonged periods in Germany at his own expense, knowing that India, at that point, lacked the facilities for him to better his game.
His legacy expands beyond his record-breaking achievements in the sport, as he uses his foundation (Abhinav Bindra Foundation) to provide athletes with access to the latest sports technology and high-performance physical training for free. His love for sports, combined with his achievements and dedication toward providing other athletes with the support required to be the best, makes him stand apart from the best.

12) Koneru Humpy

The reigning world rapid champion was also the youngest woman to achieve the title of Grandmaster, at the age of 15 years before the record was broken in 2008. The ace chess champion hailing from Andhra Pradesh also became only the second woman after the legendary Judit Polgár, who is considered to be the greatest female chess player, to cross the 2600 Elo rating mark. The Asian gold medalist is widely revered as the greatest Indian female chess player. She also won the BBC Indian Sportswoman of the year award in 2020 for her remarkable achievements.

13) Mithali Raj

India's other 'Captain Cool', Mithali Raj, has led her team to a World Cup finals in 2005 and has come up clutch with big knocks whenever her team needed to be bailed out. The "Tendulkar of Indian Women's cricket" is also the leading run-scorer across the ODI format in international cricket, amassing a total of 10,273 runs. She also holds the records for being the most capped player and the most consecutive fifties.
Mithali Raj's batting style is a treat to watch as she controls the tempo of the innings, knowing exactly when to unleash the fireworks. She defines leadership by example as her never say die attitude trickles to the last player on the team hence helping them come through with key victories.

14) Sunil Chettri

The Indian football team's 'Captain Fantastic' had huge shoes of Baichung Bhutia to fill as he took over the captaincy. Chettri made the most of his opportunity as he led his team from the front, banging in goals while picking up his teammates and motivating them when they needed. His ability to pick his spots and score with a sniper's accuracy made him joint top scorer with the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi at one point.
Chettri stands in 13th on the active list with 75 goals, but his impact goes beyond the football pitch and the stats sheet. His viral video requesting more support by the fans after a poor turnout changed the way Indian football was viewed as celebrities and other athletes encouraged fans to turn up, which they did in large numbers for the next couple of games. His impact goes beyond as fans and players alike look up to him. His ability to lead the team in one of the country's most successful eras and his individual accomplishments made him the greatest Indian football player of all time.

15) Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi

Paes and Bhupathi, two names that have been widely revered in tennis circles around the world. The two stars, despite each having storied careers individually, put Indian tennis on the world map when they played together. You cannot say one name without thinking of the other, such was the impact they had as a doubles pair.
The former world number 1 pair won multiple Grand Slams while dominating the best in the world. India was not known as a nation that could produce ace tennis players before the introduction of the pair, with each winning multiple Grand Slams separately post their split. Despite their split, their legacies will forever be intertwined.

16) Saikhom Mirabai Chanu

Mirabai Chanu is the physical embodiment of determination and willpower after a disappointing pe//rformance in the 2016 Rio Olympics. The Manipuri ace came back stronger than ever to bag the silver after missing the gold by a whisker at the Tokyo Paralympics.

Mirabai serves as an inspiration to the country, showing us that hard work and determination to persist despite the odds being stacked against you will lead to victory eventually. Her success opened the doors for future athletes to stand on the podium, with her continuing to be the guiding light. Saikhom Mirabai Chanu, remember the name! Her legacy will forever reverberate down the ages as her name is etched in the history books while we sing her praises and tell her stories to the next generation.

17) Neeraj Chopra

No list can be complete without the inclusion of India's first track and field gold medalist, Neeraj Chopra. Neeraj fulfilled Milkha Singh's prophecy of India winning Olympic gold in the track and field events, honouring the legendary sprinter by dedicating his gold to him.

The young champion will eventually be a regular fixture on the podium with his immense sense of pride in seeing his country's flag being raised the highest. His determination and persistence to beat the best and be the best version of himself while doing so under immense pressure show us why he is a precious gem for the present and future of Indian sports. We will eventually be seeing a lot more from the Olympics champion as he gets better and better with age.

18) Geethu Anna Rahul

Geethu Anna Rahul is arguably the greatest Indian basketball player with what she has achieved in the domestic and international levels of the game despite tough competition from the likes of Amjyot Singh, Anitha Pauldurai, Khushi Ram and Satnam Singh. Hailing from Kottayam, Kerala, Geethu Anna was the first basketball player to come close to playing professional basketball in the United States as she was invited for tryouts by the Chicago Sky, Los Angeles Sparks and the Las Vegas Aces from the WNBA.

Despite not making it on the roster, the teams left the workouts being highly impressed with her skills and work ethic. She was also among the first basketball players from the country to play abroad as she played in the WNBL of Australia while also having a stint in Thailand. She represented the Hawks in the WNBL, becoming the top scorer in the league for a season and winning the Most Valuable Player award. She also dominated the Asian Basketball Championships in 2007 and 2009, being the top scorer in both editions.

Geethu Anna's legacy extends beyond the court as she has kicked down multiple doors, allowing other young Indian stars such as Sanjana Ramesh and Harsimran Kaur to shine abroad.

There are plenty of other athletes apart from the 15 who have defined success at the highest levels in their sport while representing our country with pride and honour. This is not the end of the list, as there will be more champions etching their names in history in the coming future.
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