The year 2022 is going to be a big one for Indian sport.
What could be bigger coming off a prolific Olympic-Paralympic year, you wonder? The take-off from the many foundations laid in 2021, naturally.
The Asian Games, the Commonwealth Games, Women's hockey World Cup (and Asia Cup before that), World Athletics Championships... these will be next chapters of the historic feats scripted this year.
It's also going to be a crucial year for international sport too... Cricket World Cups (Women's ODI, Men's T20I), a FIFA World Cup in Qatar's winter, a troubled Winter Olympics in Beijing, a grudge racing season in Formula 1 and the latest edition of the pesky Grand-Slam-GOAT-race in tennis. A number of big events pushed back from 2020 and 2021 are also set to take place, making it a loaded year.
With so much sporting action lined up, it can be hard to pick the main events and talking point to focus on. Fear not, here's our handy guide on what to watch out for. Subject to the C-word of course.
AFC Women's Asian Cup -- January
An important tournament for the Indian women's football team, which goes beyond the results. Since it's happening in India, there has been an effort to provide better support for the women's team. A new coach, frequent foreign exposure trips -- including against the formidable Brazil -- and a chance to play the best continental teams will only be an advantage for the young side.
Honourable mention: FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup -- October
The foundation for Indian women's football is being laid from the age group level, with the twice postponed FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup set to be finally held this year in India.
Winter Olympics -- February
While India's participation is limited to one Olympian, there is a record to be found there as well. Alpine skier Arif Mohammed Khan has become the first Indian athlete to qualify for two different events (slalom and giant slalom) of the Winter Olympics.
World Athletics Championships -- July
Now that India has an Olympic champion in athletics, the postponed World Championships has a greater significance. All eyes will be on Neeraj Chopra wherever he competes but for the javelin thrower, the Worlds in Oregon is the next big goal; something he declared soon after he won the Olympic gold.
India so far has just one medal at the event -- Anju Bobby George's bronze in 2003 -- and Chopra will look to add to that after missing the last two chances. Out in qualification in 2017 and injured in 2019. The hope, of course, is that more than one Indian is a genuine medal contender, and the promising results at this year's U-20 Worlds are a positive sign.
Commonwealth Games -- July to August
Despite the opportunity to boost medals tally, the CWG won't be the main focus of most Indian athletes this time, with the Asiad (an Olympic qualifier in some sports) happening soon after. The hockey teams have already been withdrawn while shooting and archery have been dropped from the program.
But a unique new experience has also been added -- 2022 will see cricket at CWG. Women's T20 cricket specifically and India is expected to send a full-strength contingent. This will be a big draw as well as medal hope for India.
There may be fewer medals this time because of the absence of shooting, but expect a good show in Birmingham nonetheless. Conditional to qualification and the contingent India fields, the Olympic sports to watch out for will be badminton, table tennis, wrestling, and boxing.
Asian Games -- September
This is the big one for India. It's a bit sooner than expected, with the euphoria of the last multi-sport event still lingering. But the Asian Games, to be held in Hangzhou, China, will be a both a big boost and test for Indian sport: to build on the performance of the Olympics, to carry on the momentum created in 2021.
The 2018 Asiad was massive for India with a number of breakthroughs, most of which rolled into the next Olympic cycle. The aim will be to similarly establish a platform ahead of Paris 2024. This time, there will also be athletes from Oceania in some of sports which uses the Games as an Olympic qualifier.
Watch out for all of India's star names in action -- athletics, hockey, shooting, badminton, boxing, wrestling, weightlifting, table tennis -- every major Olympic sport holds the hope for higher ground from an Indian fan's perspective. Additionally, the Asiad will also see India's kabaddi teams in action after a long time; and a hungrier version after missing gold the last time.
Side note: Watch out for the new Olympic sports breaking and e-sports in this edition.
Women's Hockey Asia Cup (Qualifier) and World Cup -- January and July
The Indian women's hockey team was our team of the year in 2021. What they accomplished at the Tokyo Olympics was worthy of a Bollywood biopic -- Chak De! India in reality as then coach Sjoerd Marine put it.
Next up is the setting of the reel Chak De! --The World Cup. First, India will have to qualify for the event at the Asia Cup early in the year. With new coach Janneke Schopman at the helm, Rani Rampal and Co now have the task of sustaining the revolution they began as they fought back against all odds to reach the bronze-medal match. Watch out for this team in every match, but more so in a year that will be big for Indian hockey.
Also note: Both the women's and men's hockey team will be seen in action in the FIH Pro League, which will be crucial in terms of quality game time.
FIFA World Cup -- November to December
A men's football World Cup in an Arab country in winter is sure to make the tournament even more unpredictable. Will it 'come home', will it go back to South America or stay in Europe, what will happen to the top leagues with a World Cup in the middle of a season? So many questions! The 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar will be unmissable for the football fan, but beyond football it could also be the international swansong for many a star name. That's all we will say for now.
Australian Open and other Grand Slams
In a field increasingly depleted, all eyes will be on defending champions Novak Djokovic and Naomi Osaka. While nine-time champion Djokovic is not yet confirmed to play, Osaka is making a comeback after taking time off for her mental health. If the World No 1 plays, there is a good chance that he will be break the record for the men's singles Slams and pull ahead of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
Even if not at the year's first Major, Djokovic's 21st, or the quest for it, will be a major milestone to watch for in 2022. As will Nadal's comeback and the clay season. But for tennis fans, there could be a potentially painful watch as well with greats such as Federer and Serena Williams struggling with injury. Will the dreaded 'end of an era' come in 2022? Will we see a new era, maybe one of consistency?
What of Indian tennis? At the last Asiad, India had a relatively young and primed bunch of players other than the veterans on the doubles circuit. But the pandemic has hit the sport hard and the hope is that we see some sort of revival this year, with more tournaments at home.
The 2021 F1 season ended with a bang - when Max Verstappen snatched the world championship from Lewis Hamilton on the last lap. The controversial nature of the win left the sporting world divided but ensured a fiery rivalry to ignite the next season of the often lopsided sport. Hamilton, now knighted, will once again push for the eighth drivers' championship that will take him ahead of Michael Schumacher. And this time, he will have a tough fight on his hands from a defending champion.
With the way the badminton season ended at the World Championships -- two Indians on the men's singles podium albeit in a depleted field -- it's hard not to have big hopes. From the expected start of the season at home in India to the many BWF tournaments and the CWG and Asian Games, it can be a truly successful year for PV Sindhu, Kidambi Srikanth and Co. All eyes will be on Lakshya Sen and how he makes his way up the ladder after a World Championships medal.