A hockey prince to a golfing prodigy, India toast GenNext in a COVID-hit 2020

A COVID-ravaged 2020 may have been a tough year for sports, but it didn’t stop a handful of Indian youngsters from making a name for themselves.

By Utathya Nag ·

Throughout history, one of sports' biggest draws has been the emergence of young stars with the promise for a sparkling  future.

Every year, sports fans yearn to find the next generation superstars because the new must take over from the old. That's the beauty of sport. But 2020 was a challenging year.

With the COVID-19 pandemic ravaging the world and all sporting activities grinding to a screeching halt, the opportunities for the young to rise and shine have been few and far between.

However, even in these difficult times, a handful of youngsters made the most of whatever was on offer.

Here are the breakout stars from Indian sports in a COVID-hit 2020.

Raj Kumar Pal – Hockey

Uttar Pradesh lad Raj Kumar Pal may have been the sole debutant for the senior Indian men’s hockey team in 2020, but India head coach Graham Reid already knows that, in the 22-year-old, he has something special in his hands.

Reid’s belief in the Raj Kumar’s abilities were on show when he opted to hand the youngster his maiden senior cap against reigning European and world champions Belgium in the FIH Pro League on February 8.

Up against the mighty Red Lions, the youngster showed little signs of nerves and put on a stellar display in midfield to help India carve out a memorable 2-1 victory over their illustrious opponents to mark his debut.

Raj Kumar Pal played in each of India’s next three matches and even scored a magnificent brace against former world champions Australia before COVID interrupted the sporting calendar worldwide.

But his pace, dribbling ability and willingness to come to the rescue of the defence line has impressed many.

Despite his brief stay with the senior team, Raj Kumar has already made a case for his inclusion in the upcoming Tokyo Olympics and was included for Indian hockey’s preparatory national camps in Bengaluru.

“My target is to prove myself here so that I can get a chance at the Olympics. I have to give 100 per cent here, and this is my chance to go up. It's just the first step for me,” he told ESPN.

Raj Kumar, in English, means prince and the youngster from the Ghazipur district has already been dubbed as Ghazipur ka Raj Kumar or the Prince of Ghazipur. Only time will tell if he can emerge as the new star of Indian hockey.

Anshu Malik – Wrestling

With a cupboard full of medals in various international junior and cadet-level tournaments, Anshu Malik was always tipped for big things but 2020 marked the year in which the Haryana-born grappler announced herself on the senior level.

Making her senior debut at the Matteo Pellicone Memorial Ranking Series in Rome, Anshu clinched a silver in the women’s 57Kg event. En route, she stunned several top bracket wrestlers, including 2019 world champion Linda Morais of Canada and 2014 Youth Olympics gold medallist Grace Bullen of Norway.

Her defeat in the final came against Nigeria’s Odunayo Adekuoroye – a quarter-finalist at Rio 2016 and a two-time Commonwealth Games champion.

Before the COVID-enforced break, Anshu Malik won a bronze at the Asian Championships 2020 held in New Delhi.

Once wrestling resumed with the Individual World Cup in Belgrade, most Indian wrestlers showed signs of rust but not Anshu. The 19-year-old was the only Indian to win a medal at the event, securing silver after losing to reigning European champion Anastasia Nichita in the final.

Having idolised four-time Olympic champion Icho Kaori of Japan, the youngster will be eager to clinch the open 57kg women’s berth in the Tokyo Games but faces tough competition. Two of India’s top women’s grapplers - Pooja Dhanda, a 2018 world championships bronze medallist, and Sarita Mor, an Asian champion – will also be eyeing the same spot.

But with Anshu’s current hot streak, the Olympic dream looks very much achievable.

Suresh Singh Wangjam – Football

Suresh Singh Wangjam has been one of Bengaluru FC’s standout performers in 2020. Photo: ISL Media

A part of the India squad for the FIFA U-17 World Cup 2017, midfielder Suresh Singh Wangjam chose 2020 as his year.

Having trained in the Indian Arrows setup, the Manipuri was included in the Bengaluru FC squad for Indian Super League (ISL) 2019-20. Wangjam played a few cameos towards the end of 2019 before breaking into Cuadrat’s first XI from January 2020.

The 20-year-old Suresh came to the fore with back-to-back impressive displays for the Blues in the following three months, helping his team reach the semi-finals.

Despite his short frame, the Manipuri has shown the unique ability to shrug off much larger players, including foreigners, in a test of strength.

Added to his uncompromising workrate and ability to drive forward with the ball to help with attacks have earned the box-to-box midfielder some high praise, including comparisons with the playing style of Italian ace Marco Verratti.

Though he lost out on the ISL Emerging Player of the Year award to ATK youngster Sumit Rathi, Wangjam caught everyone’s eyes with his all-round displays.

While Rathi has been struggling for playing time at ATK Mohun Bagan this season after the arrival of Sandesh Jhingan, Wangjam has continued to be a vital piece in Bengaluru FC’s first XI, playing in seven of Bengaluru’s eight matches so far.

It’s quite a feat considering Bengaluru’s star-studded midfield featuring Dimas Delgado, Erik Paartalu, Harmanjot Khabra and Thoi Singh.

Indian football team head coach Igor Stimac is known to be a big admirer of the youngster and it will hardly be a surprise to see him break into the senior national team in 2021.

Karandeep Kochhar – Golf

Golfer Karandeep Kochhar finished 2020 on a high. Photo: PGTI

Nephew of ace shooter Abhinav Bindra, the only Indian to have won an individual gold medal at the Olympics, Karandeep Kochhar has been making a name for himself in a different sport – golf.

The 21-year-old Kochhar had a promising 2020. He won the PGTI Players Championship in Chandigarh – his first title as a professional - in November before upsetting some big names like Olympian Anirban Lahiri, four-time European Tour winner SSP Chawrasia, eight-time Asian Tour winner Jyoti Randhawa and Arjuna Awardee Gaganjeet Bhullar to clinch the Jeev Milkha Singh Invitational on the PGTI Tour.

Back in 2016, Kochhar became the youngest golfer, and the only amateur, to win a PGTI title after winning a PGTI Players Championship event at the Tollygunge Club in Kolkata but this year marked his arrival as a pro golfer.

The youngster has already set his eyes on the Olympics as his big goal.

“I've first hand seen how special the Olympics are. It would be special to make it there myself," he says.

Having lit the way through a challenging year, all eyes will be on the youngsters heading into 2021.