India's greatest sports heroes

India's greatest sports heroes

Cricket is the beating heart of sports in India, but heroes in chess, track and badminton give it brainy, dexterous form

You could call them mere players in a game. But to do so would ignore the power that India's greatest athletes have to inspire generation after generation with their deeds, both on and off the field. At the topmost stratum of the nation's sports pantheon are athletes who were trailblazers; athletes who didn’t let uncharted territory derail their ambitions; athletes who lived and played with dignity, commanding both fear and respect.

At a time when money was not the prize, and the glory of seeing the Indian national colors fly was enough to fill both heart and stomach, these champions of pride and perseverance embodied routinely the spirit that most struggle ever to summon. Fresh from forgotten memories, we present them to you here, the five greatest sports heroes in Indian history.

Milkha Singh, athlete

He was called ‘the flying Sikh.’ Pride of Punjab. Pride of the Sikhs. Pride of India. He did what no Indian did at the time. He ran -- as a profession. Singh is on this list for gold medals won in the Asian Games in 1958 and 1962. But he’s also here for the medal he narrowly missed in the 1960 Rome Olympics, a race in which he finished faster than the standing world record. At a time without byzantine 25th-century shoe technology, Singh ran barefoot for most of his career.

Prakash Padukone, badminton

They called him ‘The Gentle Tiger,’ though his opposition post-1971 would likely object to the moniker; it was at about that time that Padukone dramatically augmented the aggressiveness of his game. But he always moved with a ballerina's grace on the court, and when he lifted the All England Championships cup in 1980, he put India in the same league with the game’s superpowers. Mild mannered, dignified, focused and still actively paying back the sport he loves, Padukone can still be seen gliding gingerly on the court at his Bangalore sports academy, playing against youngsters who look on in awe and admiration.

Kapil Dev, cricket

It's probably the most widely circulated image in Indian cricket history. Kapil Dev, at Lords, that overcast English evening in 1983, holding the World Cup aloft. He was India’s first true pace bowler. He bowled injury free, when bowlers today have a tough time lasting a series without a niggle. As national team captain Dev codified the phrase “Kapil’s Devils” in sporting lore. And he did it when no one gave a lanky lad from Haryana a chance, retiring as the highest wicket taker ever, anywhere and one of the best cricketing all rounders of all time.

Vishwanathan Anand, chess

Anand doesn’t just look like a scientist, he prepares for his game like one. He has decimated former champions with the precision of a physicist dismantling an atomic bomb, blowing the likes of Kasparov, Karpov and Kramnik out of the water. World champion, grandmaster, Arjuna awardee, Chess Oscar winner, padma shri, padma bhushan, padma vibhushan and a global ambassador to the brainy sport. He may live his life in black and white, but Anand’s achievements are a brilliant rainbow on India's sports horizon.

Sunil Gavaskar, cricket

Gavaskar batted in an era when the dangerous West Indian pace quartet was at peak ferocity. He didn’t wear the protective helmets of today, he didn’t have modern day umpires ruling a no ball for more than one bouncer per over. His opening partners changed dozens of times throughout his career, but the captain always held up his end. He was the first man to cross the unthinkable milestone of 10,000 runs in test cricket and surpassed Sir Don’s record for test centuries. He did it all seemingly without breaking a sweat and smiling, always, all the way to the commentary booth where he now sits. Sachin Tendulkar, by his own admission, grew up idolizing Gavaskar, and would undoubtedly rate him higher than himself.

Gaurav Kapur is a sports presenter and actor living in Mumbai. He wears a few other hats including sports columnist, but strongly denies being just a hat rack.