The spotlight will be on Olympic champion Neeraj Chopra but the likes of Murali Sreeshankar and Avinash Sable are also strong medal contenders as the Indian athletics team eyes its best Commonwealth Games show away from home in the upcoming edition in Birmingham. Woman javelin thrower Annu Rani and 38-year-old discus thrower Seema Antil, the most decorated Indian at the CWG with three silver and one bronze, could also finish on the podium, while India is expected to win more than one medal in men’s triple jump event.
With several world-class athletes emerging, especially after Chopra won a historic athletics gold in Tokyo Olympics last year, India would be looking for at least half a dozen medals in the July 28 to August 8 Games.
The country’s best athletics medal haul had come at the Delhi CWG in 2010 with 2 gold, 3 silver and 7 bronze. That performance will surely be difficult to match but the Indians would be looking for their second best show ever.
The second best show from the Indian athletics contingent at the CWG till now has been the three-medal hauls (1 gold, 1 silver, 1 bronze each) in the 2014 and 2018 editions.
With all the six finalists in the ongoing World Championships in Eugene, USA, heading to Birmingham where competition will be relatively easier, India would fancy their chances to win a handful of medals.
The country has so far won 28 medals (5 gold, 10 silver, 13 bronze) across editions since the legendary Milkha Singh claimed a gold in men’s 440 yards event in 1958.
Sekar Dhanalakshmi, who was to compete in women’s 100m and 4x100m relay, and Aishwarya Babu, who was to feature in long jump as well as triple jump, were pulled out of the 36-member team after failing dope tests which brought shame to the country.
Dhanalakshmi would not have much chance in 100m but her absence would deal a blow to the women’s 4×100 relay team though India are not medal favourites in the presence of England, Jamaica, Canada and Australia.
Aishwarya could have been a medal contender — for a bronze — with her national mark of 14.14m set at the National Inter-State Championships last month.
Defending champion Chopra is, however, not sure shot for a gold medal as he will have to fight for the top honour against Anderson Peters of Grenada. Peters had finished third in the 2018 Gold Coast Games with a best throw of 82.20m while Chopra won gold with 86.47m.
Since then, Peters has won the 2019 World Championships gold and has thrown 90m-plus thrice this year.
Chopra has beaten Peters twice while the 24-year-old Grenadian had prevailed over the Indian once in their three meetings this year so far.
India can win two medals in the men’s javelin throw event as 2012 Olympics champion Keshorn Walcott, the third best among Commonwealth athletes behind Peters and Chopra, is struggling this season.
India’s DP Manu and Rohit Yadav, who made it to the World Championships final along with Chopra, are next in the season’s list among Commonwealth athletes.
Manu had won a gold at the National Inter-State Championships last month with a throw of 84.35m while Rohit qualified for his maiden final in the World Championships.
Joint second in season’s list with his 8.36m, Sreeshankar is a hot favourite to win a medal in Birmingham. He was a medal contender in the World Championships but finished seventh with a best effort of 7.99m.
The World Championships disappointment could spur him to nail a medal in the CWG. His seventh spot in the Worlds final was the best among Commonwealth athletes with Jamaica’s Wayne Pinnock and Australia’s Henry Frayne finishing ninth and 12th respectively.
The other Indian long jumper, Muhammed Anees Yahiya could also be in medal contention if he can clear 8m mark, which he has done five times this season with a best of 8.15m in March.
Sable, on his part, will have to fight again with Kenya’s World Championships bronze medallist Conseslus Kipruto and Abraham Kibiwot in the 3000m steeplechase for the top honours.
Kibiwot had finished fifth in the Eugene World Championships in a slow and tactical race while Sable ended at 11th. Kipruto and Kibiwot had won gold and silver respectively in the last edition in Gold Coast.
India’s three triple jumpers, Praveen Chitravel, Abdulla Aboobacker and Eldhose Paul, who made it to the World Championships final, are the best performers among Commonwealth athletes this season.
Chitravel and Aboobacker have breached the 17m mark this season, and they would look to make amends after their disappointing performances in the World Championships, where they could come up with just 16.49m and 16.45m respectively.
Annu Rani will also be confident heading into the Birmingham CWG after her second consecutive World Championships final appearance. She will be up against the likes of Australia’s 2019 world champion Kelsey-Lee Barber, also Tokyo Olympics bronze medallist, and Canada’s Elizabeth Gleadle for top honours.
Women’s discus throw can also fetch India two medals, from Seema Antil and Navjeet Kaur Dhillon, just like they won a silver and a bronze in 2018 edition with 60.41m and 57.43m efforts respectively. Any distance beyond 60m is good for a CWG medal.
Antil is gunning for her fifth medal in as many appearances. She has never returned empty-handed from the CWG though her best performance this season was the 57.09m effort at Chula Vista in USA a few days ago.
Navjeet Kaur Dhillon has not crossed 60m mark this year with a best of 58.03m in May, but in a weak field, she can win a medal if she improves her season’s best.
The marathon race, in which India’s Nitender Rawat will take part in the men’s event, will be held on July 30, while the other track and field events will be held from August 2 to 7.
There was selection drama also as high jumper Tejaswin Shankar was not picked in the team after he breached the qualifying standard laid down by the Athletics Federation of India (AFI). After Shankar petitioned at the Delhi High Court, the AFI included him in the team but the Birmingham organisers refused to accept it as the entry deadline was already over.