Indian athletics seemed to have taken a giant, decisive stride last year when it possibly surprised itself with a medal haul of 19, seven of them gold, in the Asian Games.
Preceding that achievement was another spectacular show, 29 medals including 12 in the Asian Athletics Championships in Bhubaneswar. India had won just one gold each in the 2009 and 2011 editions, improved it to two in 2013 at home and four in 2015.
Part of the Bhubaneswar success could be attributed to home advantage and another part to the sub-standard field that assembled for the 22nd edition of the continental meet. Yet, it was an impressive performance by any yardstick.
In the aftermath of last year's Asian Games medal haul, there is talk, not unexpectedly, of aiming for higher honours, more specifically the Olympic medals. The hardest test would come at the Tokyo Olympics next year.
An elbow injury has forced the country's highest-ranked athlete, javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra to pull out of the team. AP/Bernat Armangue
Towards that goal, it is essential for the Indian athletes to perform up to their true potential in the Asian championships in Doha (21-24 April). It will serve a dual purpose. If one becomes the champion that gives the athlete a straight entry into the World Championships to be held at the same venue in September-October this year. If that target is missed there would be no need to despair; they can aim for a good placing, not necessarily a podium finish, towards gathering valuable points that go into the world rankings calculations.
Why are world rankings important? It is going to play a crucial role in Olympic qualification if an athlete fails to achieve the rather stiff entry standards that have been prescribed by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF).
From an Indian athlete's perspective, Asian championships provide the ideal platform to accumulate placing points since our athletes rarely get opportunities to compete in Diamond League or similar high-ranking meets. A top place in the continental meet is worth 170 placing points, but if an athlete finishes even eighth, that is worth 80 points. Compare this to the meagre 15 points for winning a domestic meet (other than National championship which in India's case is considered as Open National), one gets a fair idea about charting out the road to Tokyo.
It is in this respect that quite a number of leading Indian athletes have already suffered either because of injuries or because they did not deem it important enough to aim for Asian championships selection or the policies of the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) have deprived them of a chance to figure in the team to Doha.
An elbow injury has forced the country's highest-ranked athlete, javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra to pull out of the team. It must be frustrating for the youngster to delay his season-opener till an unspecified date. Elbow injuries are common among javelin throwers but if ignored, can be troublesome from a long-term perspective.
This is true of the stress fracture reported about hurdler Dharun Ayyasamy. The Tamil Nadu athlete had been in such terrific form since last year, national records came almost at will. A 48.80s at the Fed Cup at Patiala in March, bettering his Asian Games timing of 48.96s, was a stunner. A national record in March? That too in a most draining event like the 400m hurdles? His injury should have been analyzed by now instead of sending him off to Chennai to undergo treatment. What caused the stress fracture?
Manjit Singh, who surprised Jinson Johnson and a few others in his frenetic dash to the line in the Asian Games 800m, is also not available. It was not clear what kind of injury he had. He was not in any kind of encouraging form early in the season but that was understandable since runners were yet to get into top gear.
In a rather illogical move, the AFI decided not to consider high jumper Tejaswin Shankar who did have the requisite norm for selection (2.25) in meets in the US.
Long jumper M Sreeshankar has also not been considered since he skipped the Fed Cup, the selection trials meet, because of an injury.
To make matters worse for the AFI, not to speak of making it tougher for the athletes themselves towards gaining world ranking points, triple jumper Arpinder Singh, training in the US, came and did just 16.34m in the Fed Cup (qualification standard 16.50m) and later said he was not thinking of Asian championships qualification.
Thus, our best jumpers were all out of the championships even before the team was picked. Quite pertinently, three of the brightest stars for the future " Chopra, Shankar and Sreeshankar " are out of the reckoning in different circumstances.
Jinson Johnson's main rival in the 800m should be Jamal Al-Hayrani of Qatar who is the leader in the Asian lists this season with his 1:46.22. Jewel Samad/AFP
The onus now is on middle distance runner Jinson Johnson, Asian Games champion in 1500m, who is also entered for the 800m. Johnson sounded confident of a good performance in Doha according to reports.
Johnson's main rival in the 800m should be Jamal Al-Hayrani of Qatar who is the leader in the Asian lists this season with his 1:46.22 clocked in San Diego, California, in April. He was the silver medallist at Bhubaneswar and bronze medallist in the Asian Games last year. The Asian Games silver winner Amir Moradi of Iran is also in the fray. In both 800m and 1500m Johnson can also expect a stiff challenge from the African 'imports' of Bahrain, Mohammed Ayoub Tiouali, a former Moroccan, and Abraham Rotich, a former Kenyan. Rotich has a range from 800m (with a best of 1:43.13 in 2012) to 10,000m.
The other challengers in 800m could be Japanese Sho Kawamoto (season-best 1:47.55) and Takumi Murashima (SB 1:47.01), Sri Lankan GR Chathuranga (SB 1:48.10) and Qatar's Abdirahman Saeed Hassan (SB 1:46.67)
The new-found confidence Johnson has in the 1500m after his Asian Games gold should spur him on in this tactical race where the Indian looks to have the edge with his final kick on the home straight. The Kerala man also has clocked an Asian season-leading 3:41.67. He starts the favourite in the metric mile.
Quarter-milers Muhammed Anas, not in the best of shapes this season following an injury, and Arokia Rajiv, looking sharper than ever since 2016, could be strong contenders for medals in the one-lapper where Asian Games champion and Asia No 1 last year, Sudan-born Abdalelah Haroun (PB 44.07s) looks destined to take the gold in front of home fans.
One of the oldest national records in the books happened to be Gopal Saini's 3000m steeplechase 1981 mark of 8:30.88. Avinash Sable, the 24-year-old Armyman, has bettered that mark twice within the space of six months, raising hopes. He timed 8:29.80 in the Open National in Bhubaneswar last year and bettered that with an 8:28.94 in the Fed Cup this year that assured him of World Championships qualification.
Sable is expected to have all the three medallists in the Asian Games for company. Iranian Hossein Keyhani, who is yet to open his season, had clocked a national record of 8:22.79 in winning the Asian Games gold. Qatari Yaser Bagharab and Japanese Kazuya Shiojiri " a 22-year-old who has run 1500m to the half marathon " were the silver and bronze winners in Jakarta. Among the others, Bahrain's John Koech and Evans Chematot also look formidable. Sable has his task cut out.
No one has crossed 20.0m in the shot put in Asia this season except Tejinder Pal Singh Toor. That makes the Asian Games champion the No 1 choice to take the title. Shot put standards have been going down in Asia through the past few seasons and Toor had provided a fresh thrust to the event with his 20.75m national record in Jakarta, the third best throw on the Asian all-time lists. Toor has five marks over 20.0m. He had lost the gold to Iranian Ali Samari last time at home by just three centimetres.
Moving away to the women's section, the main hope for individual medals would be sprinter Dutee Chand and 400m runner Hima Das.
Dutee, a double silver winner in the Jakarta Asiad, will have to contend with her regular opponents in the 100m, China's Wei Yongli, champion in 2014 and bronze medallist in 2018 in the Asian Games, and Kazakhstan's Olga Saffronikova, who was sixth in Jakarta.
A surprise, formidable opponent may line-up at the start of the 200m final against Dutee, Bahrain's redoubtable Salwa Eid Naser. Jewel Samad/AFP
A surprise, formidable opponent may line-up at the start of the 200m final against Dutee, Bahrain's redoubtable Salwa Eid Naser. She has been entered for the 200m and the more familiar 400m. She won the 200-400 double at the Arab championships in Cairo earlier in April. She has a best of 23.03s in the 200m, clocked back in 2015. She won in Cairo in 23.45s, much poorer to Dutee's season-best 23. 30s. Dutee has a PB of 23.00s set last year.
If Salwa Naser is competing, she should once again be the favourite in the 400m where she beat Hima Das comfortably in the Asian Games. She was No 2 in the world lists last year (49.08s) when she was beaten just once. She timed 52.72s in winning the Arab title this month.
Hima has not been very impressive after she took a break to prepare for her exams before coming back to win the Fed Cup in 52.88s. To improve from 55.19s for fourth place in the Indian Grand Prix in Sangrur to the top in Fed Cup in a sub-53 was a fine effort all the same. She had improved from 55-s-plus to 50.79s in less than a year in 2017-2018. India's relay hopes in Tokyo Olympics will largely be dependent on Hima and her ability to clock a sub-50 timing.
Woman throwers, javelin thrower Annu Rani and the No 2 Shilpa Kumari, and discus throwers Kamalpreet Kaur and Navjeet Kaur Dhillon will be up against formidable Chinese opponents. Lu Huihui of China posted an Asian record of 67.72m on 13 April while her teammate Liu Shiying threw 65.80m in the same meet. Annu Rani, supposed to have conquered the 'demons' that seemed to have caused a mental block in competitions, has apparently come out of it. But her new National record of 62.34m will not be enough to unsettle Lu Huihui.
In the discus throw, Kaur and Dhillon will face tough competition from China's Yang Chen and Bin Feng and Thailand's Subenrat Insaeng, who are all ranked ahead of the Indian duo. Chen and Insaeg won gold and silver in Bhubaneswar in 2017 while Feng, with a throw of 62.97 earlier this month, holds the season's best throw among Asians.
Swapna Barman seems to have picked up from where she left off at the Asian Games. Her 5900-plus points in the Fed Cup is an indication about her form and rising stature. She may still be well short of the Olympic qualification standard of 6420 but might yet get into the world rankings list to make the cut for Tokyo. Of course, a win in this meet will provide an automatic berth in the World Championships.
India, as in the recent past, is pinning much of its hopes on the 4x400m relays including the mixed relay. The controversial exit of Jisna Mathew after she had finished fourth (upgraded from fifth when fourth-placed Debashree Majumdar was ruled out for relay since she was a non-camper) but was pushed to the fifth by the federation, leaving coach PT Usha fuming, has left a bad taste.
If Usha has talked about "they" to identify the federation, that only showed a sense of frustration in her ward being treated differently since she was not part of the Turkey or Poland training groups.
The men's 4x400 team will have to work hard to hold off teams like Qatar and Bahrain. Haroun's form and presence will matter for Qatar which would also be hoping that their world-class hurdler Abderrahman Samba would provide the additional thrust to the relay team in front of home fans. The stands should also see a sizeable chunk of Indians, one hopes.
Among the other medal contenders in the Indian team, mention must be made of distance runner Murli Kumar Gavit, 400m hurdler MP Jabir, javelin thrower Davinder Singh Kang " whose last-minute selection as replacement for Chopra, ahead of a few who finished ahead of him in Fed Cup raised a few eyebrows " and woman metric miler PU Chithra, distance runner Sanjivani Jadhav and 800m runner M Gomathi.
At the time of writing it was not clear whether steeplechaser Sudha Singh was going to be cleared by the Sports Ministry since she had not completed the 'confirmatory trials' and had not competed in Fed Cup.
Talking of "confirmatory trials", a farce quite often thrust upon, athletes, coaches, media and the fans by the AFI, it was an all-clear for all whose performance had come under some additional scrutiny in the Fed Cup. Doubts are often expressed when non-campers perform a little above par. Obviously, these doubts pertain to doping, the general argument being campers do not get a chance to dope since teams from the National Anti-Doping Agency (NADA) are roaming around the training venues every other day.
This may not be a correct assessment of the situation nor should one believe NADA does not have any other job to do!
The fact that the selection committee, which had picked the original team with some of the athletes scheduled to undergo "confirmatory trials", was eventually not consulted on the final selection once again raised questions about AFI's functioning. Why have a selection committee? Why go through with "confirmatory trials" and "fitness trials"?
From a non-Indian perspective, the return of world champion high jumper Mutaz Essa Barshim after a break from competition last July because of an injury and surgery will be in focus. If he competes in front of his home fans, that is. He has been entered and one hopes he will make a triumphant return.
China has entered a fairly strong team while Japan, as in the recent past has not. There might have been doubts about Bahrain and Saudi Arabia's participation because of political issues. But both have sent in entries. Time to enjoy the action and forget politics!