From Manika to Mary - Top five moments in Indian sport in 2018

To celebrate the year in Indian sport, each ESPN staffer picked their five favourite moments of 2018. After a final count, here is what made our list.

#5: Unreal Kashmir

Real Kashmir FC: A club created out of destructive floodwaters that burst over the Valley in 2014, found its feet, made its mark and became the first team from Jammu & Kashmir to qualify for the I-League first division in only its third year. After a surprise entry into the second division, RKFC found a way to vault over limited resources, inadequate infrastructure, civic unrest and political uncertainty to let its football do the talking. RKFC remained undefeated across 13 matches in the 18-club, three-month, second-division league, their qualification revealing a story of improbable magic and unreal romanticism. Co-owned by a Kashmiri Muslim and a Kashmiri Hindu, coached by former Scottish Rangers-pro David Robertson, RKFC was made up of a rainbow of ethnicities, with Kashmiris in the majority. This, the owners and the players wanted the world to understand, was what was true and real and alive behind the nightly news headlines of an otherwise troubled state.

Related: Un-Real Kashmir - A football club gives hope to the beleaguered state

#4: Year of Bajrang

Gold at the Commonwealth Games, gold at the Asian Games, silver at the World Championships and the world No. 1 ranking in the 65kg category. It was Bajrang Punia's year all right. Better technique -- with coach Shako Bentinidis minimizing his vulnerability around the legs -- and a new self-belief saw him lose only two bouts in 2018. Bentinidis thinks the 24-year-old has everything going for him and will make the 65kg freestyle category his own. But though Bajrang is already the best-known Indian male wrestler after Olympic medallists Sushil Kumar and Yogeshwar Dutt, he knows he has to shine on the greatest stage next. It is all about Tokyo 2020 now.

Related: Bajrang moves out of mentor Yogeshwar's shadow with CWG gold

#3: There's something about Mary

It shouldn't come as a surprise anymore when Mary Kom wins gold. That's what she has done over the past two decades. In 2018, she ticked off some of the few remaining boxes in her career. She won her first gold at the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast and then followed that up with a record sixth title at the Boxing World Championships in New Delhi. Her latest triumph, one in which she was voted boxer of the tournament, proved the 35-year-old mother of three is showing no signs of slowing down just yet. Where she once bulldozed her way past opponents, she's now schooling them with technique. As she remarkably still finds ways to improve, Mary Kom has unfinished business. An Olympic gold still eludes her. After a bronze in London, she failed to qualify for the 2016 Games. Tokyo 2020 looms large on the horizon. The Games come with their share of challenges -- she will likely have to make the move to a heavier weight division and she's going to be 37 years old. But the Olympics is the biggest stage of them all and that's where India's biggest boxing star will be expected to shine.

Related: Invincible Mary Kom consolidates her legend among the pantheon of greats

#2: Dutee's moment of redemption

Eyes closed, fists clenched, chest thrust to match the stride of her limbs, Dutee Chand stepped out of labels and a scarred past into an unreal, gobsmacked moment of truth. Exactly four years after she was slapped with a ban and robbed of her right to compete, the Odisha girl ran the race of her life to win silver in the 100m sprint by 0.02 seconds at the Asian Games. None of her earlier wins -- in courts or over detractors or over peers -- would have felt more cathartic. More than guts, glory, a silver medal won or a gold missed, Dutee brought the sprint event out of the cold storage in the Indian sporting context. Her journey to making that possible was everything you didn't believe in before you saw her in her blue vest right there on your screen telling you how far hope can take you.

Related: Caster, Dutee and the obstacle race of their lives

#1: Rise of Indian table tennis

India's table tennis story at the 2018 Commonwealth Games is one that will be passed on from generation to generation. A tale that saw potential world-beaters become present-day world-beaters, giving a ray of hope to a sport that loomed in the shadows for too long. The story began when the women's team beat the formidable Singaporeans -- who'd won every gold medal in the event since its inclusion at the Games in 2002 -- in the final. Manika Batra, ranked 58th in the world, led the charge, beating three-time Olympic medallist and world No. 4 Tianwei Feng in the process. If that tear-ridden podium experience wasn't enough, Manika would do one better, winning the singles final to instantly become the star of the fable. The men's team would win another gold, but by then India's table tennis story had already written its happy ending.

Related: The long-distance weapon that helped Manika conquer Gold Coast