The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
Three inspirational trendsetters, three magnificent maestros, three dazzling phenoms. They appeared almost in unison, in a spectacular blaze. They zoomed across a sporting firmament that at the time of their arrival was pitch black — but for occasional solitary singular flashes. The three trailblazers set alight a torch largely unknown in the sporting history of the nation, and the flame sparkled around the world and across decades. And it continues to burns bright — against all odds and expectations, challenging the unforgiving passage of time.
Viswanathan Anand was born in the last month of 1969. Sachin Tendulkar and Leander Paes followed within two months of each other in 1973.
They grew up in an era when India was dogged by stagnating economy, daily grind, license raj and rampant corruption. Every ounce of energy was spent in the fag and drudge of life — the country waded through the heavy residuals of bureaucracy, chugged along the ancient trodden paths that lagged decades behind modernisation. Sports remained relegated to the distant back-pages of the politics heavy dailies. The common man was too busy wiping the sweat of the brow to appreciate the persevering sportsmen who were sometimes gallant but seldom reached the pinnacle in their disciplines.
Even the hockey team had stopped winning the regulation Olympic Gold after 1964; only a spate of boycotts by Western Bloc countrieshad enabled the national team to win one more at the 1980 Moscow Games.
Sunil Gavaskar did produce promising glimpses of sunny days, and the country did win the World Cup in 1983 under Kapil Dev. But the team lagged far behind the best in the world. In 1960s they had been the dull dogs of cricket. The 1970s and 1980s had performed major facelift for the image, but they were not world beaters by any means. Certainly not in Test cricket
Ramanathan Krishnan occasionally overcame a legend like Rod Laver. Once in a while Vijay Amritraj took two sets from Jimmy Connors before succumbing to the pressure of the Wimbledon quarter-finals. Ramesh Krishnan upset many big names in the initial rounds, but stumbled regularly as tournaments wore on. In a spate of ethereal touch play and burning zeal, India did overcome Australia in the Davis Cup semi-final of 1987, but were decimated by Sweden in the title round.
And it had been a long while since Sultan Khan’s unorthodox knight opening on the chequered board had overcome Jose Raul Capablanca in 1930.
At this juncture,splashed the waves of modernisation. Economic liberalisation and globalisation rushed forth in the wake of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout. In early 1990s, foreign investments grew exponentially, the youth of the day shuttled around the world, crossing borders, earning like never before, with a degree of confidence that had never graced the earlier generation of salarymen. India emerged as a force to reckon with on the global map. And as a symbol of this new India the sporting arena was suddenly dazzled by three glittering jewels who reached the very peak of their respective areas like no Indian sportsman had done.
As the century drew to a close, Anand, Tendulkar and Paes ensured that India was no longer a mere pushover at the rear end of the sporting world.
In January 1999, Sachin Tendulkar was acknowledged as the best batsman of the world, sitting at the top of the International Cricket Council (ICC) rankings, making India believe that even the impossible could be achieved. By June that year, Leander Paes had climbed the No 1 in the ATP Doubles Rankings. And in 2000 at Tehran, Viswanathan Anand won the FIDE World Chess Championship for the first time.
Never before had three sporting beacons cast such a collective glow in the sphere of Indian sports. By this time they had already ruled the sporting consciousness of the nation for a decade and more.
And they kept the flame alive with undiminished brilliance. By the end of the next decade, they had reached a level of enlightenment in their respective fields that left room only for achievements that were close to esoteric, beyond the reach and imagination of mortals.
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