Sreeshankar vs. Anees gets Indian athletics off to an unprecedented start in 2022

Murali Sreeshankar in action (File photo). MARTIN BUREAU/AFP via Getty Images

National record holder Murali Sreeshankar produced the best season opening jump by an Indian long jumper while state-mate Muhammed Anees Yahiya made the best jump not to win gold at a competition in India, as the Indian jumps calendar got off to an unprecedentedly high-level start at the Indian Open National Jumps Competition in Thiruvananthapuram.

When it comes to athletics, it's usually best not to get your hopes up too high about a season opener. They come with the excitement of being the first competition of the season (and one that's been even more awaited in India owing to the postponement of several events due to the COVID-19 Pandemic), performances don't generally live up to the expectations.

This was the case at the throws competition, the first athletics event of 2022 in India, where every athlete was a long way off from the national record. For instance, national record holder and Tokyo Olympian Tajinder Toor's gold medal winning shot put throw in Patiala was more than a meter and a half short of his personal best.

As national coach Radhakrishnan Nair explained ahead of that competition, "The last time athletes would have competed would have been late last year. Since then they would have been training. The training phase is very different from the competition phase. Around the time of the season opener, athletes are just beginning their competition cycle so they will be a long way from their personal bests. This is basically an opportunity for athletes to know exactly where they stand and where they need to get better."

That notion, though, was blown out of the water on Monday.

Competing for the first time since the Tokyo Olympics national record holder Murali Sreeshankar started with a huge 8.15m jump - the best ever season opening jump by any Indian athlete - and the third best jump of his career. That opening jump wasn't a one off. Over the next three jumps, Sreeshankar hovered just shy of the 8m mark with jumps of 7.98m, 7.96m and 7.96m. On his penultimate jump he once again crossed the 8m standard with a mark of 8.10m.

At this point he appeared to be the clear winner.

His closest challenger had been Muhammad Anees Yahiya who had made jumps of 7.86m, 7.89m and 7.89m, in his third fourth and fifth attempts. However Anees had saved his best for last, with a giant personal best of 8.15m in his final attempt. As he thrust his arms skyward on seeing the mark on the digital scoreboard, Anees would have thought he had done enough to edge Sreeshankar. The two have a friendly rivalry (Anees had first breached the 8m mark last year - at the same competition where Sreeshankar had set the NR of 8.26m). And, of course, the fact that no Indian athlete had jumped this far and not won gold in a competition in India.

Enter, Sreeshankar. Again.

In his final attempt, Sreeshankar raced down the track, found the board perfectly and went even further. As the scoreboard flashed 8.17m, the two Keralites were able to share a laugh.

Sreeshankar and Anees' performances would have been impressive at any domestic competition in India. For them to record them in the very first competition of the season will raise expectations that both are capable of doing even more as the season progresses. With the calendar featuring big ticket events like the Asian Games and Commonwealth Games ahead in the year, that can only be a good thing for Indian athletics.