First time in history, 11 players are selected for Khel Ratna; Mithali Raj is on the list

Abhijit Sen Gupta
Abhijit Sen Gupta

For the first time in the history of Indian sports, eleven names have been recommended for the honour of being awarded the Khel Ratna award by the Government of India. This step comes on the heels of the best ever showing by India’s sportspersons at the Olympic Games.

India had won seven medals including a gold in the Tokyo Olympics which concluded in  August.

The most deserving name is of course that of Neeraj Chopra who won the gold medal in the javelin throw. Sports fans of Hyderabad will no doubt be happy to see the name of Mithali Raj on the list too. The others are Ravi Dahiya, Lovlina Borgohain, P.R. Sreejesh, Sunil Chhetri, Avani Lekhara, Manish Narwal, Sumit Antil, Pramod Bhagat and Krishna Nagar.

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The award which is officially known as the Major Dhyan Chand Khel Ratna award used to be called the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna award before Prime Minister Narendra Modi renamed it in a move that created some controversy in August last. It is the highest ranking award for Indian sportspersons and is awarded every year by the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports. As of now, the award carries a medallion, a certificate and a cash prize of Rs 25 lakh.

India had sent its largest ever contingent to the Tokyo Olympics and the players brought home a bagful of medals. Even the para athletes (paralympians as they are called) did well and deservedly five of them are on the list.

The most glamourous name is that of Neeraj Chopra the javelin expert whose throw of 87.58 metres gave him the gold medal in Tokyo. India’s veteran athlete, the late Milkha Singh, had for many years expressed a desire to see an Indian athlete winning a gold medal in the track and field events of the Olympic Games. Sadly, he passed away a few months before Neeraj accomplished the feat.

Neeraj had been putting up consistent performances ever since he joined the Tau Devi Lal sports complex in Haryana at the age of 13. There he was put through a rigorous training programme by Naseem Ahmad who was a running coach but trained Neeraj in running as well as javelin throwing. Over the next few years his steady progress at the national and international level caught the eye of Indian army recruiters and he was offered a direct appointment as a Junior Commissioned Officer (JCO) in the Rajputana Rifles. The army moulded his career in a variety of ways and even gave him special leave to seek training and competition in Europe.

It all finally culminated in the stunning victory at the Tokyo Olympics. This Khel Ratna award will be a fitting reward for this talented javelin thrower and encourage him to pursue more victories for India in the years to come.

As far as the twin cities are concerned, a huge number of sports fans are thrilled that Mithali Raj is on the list. She is the highest run scorer in women’s international cricket and the only woman cricketer to cross 7,000 runs in women’s ODI matches. In 2018, she became the first player from India (either male or female) to score 2000 runs in T20Is. She is sometimes referred to as the Sachin Tendulkar of women’s cricket although she hates that sobriquet. Due to her independent nature, she believes that she has a place of her own and need not be likened to any male player.

For Mithali, breaking records has become a matter of habit. She is the only woman player to have captained India in two ICC ODI World Cup finals. During India’s series against New Zealand, Mithali became the first woman to play in 200 ODI matches. In 2019, she became the first woman to complete 20 years in international cricket. In fact her durability at the highest level of the game has astonished the pundits. Earlier this year she became the leading run scorer in women’s international cricket when she overtook Charlotte Edwards of England.

Even now, at the age of 38, Mithali remains as fit and keen as any 20 year old. In fact her teammate Shefali Verma who is creating waves in international cricket is 17 years old. Less than half of Mithali’s age!

Mithali is also the recipient of many national and international awards, including Arjuna award and Padma Shri. Now the Khel Ratna award will complete the list of awards in her collection and the question that may now arise is “What next for Mithali?” That question only Mithali can answer. Knowing her aptitude and approach to life, she will probably prefer to answer that question on the cricket field instead of mere words.

Abhijit Sen Gupta is a seasoned journalist who writes on Sports and various other subjects.

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