The Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna is the highest Indian sporting honour. It is awarded every year by the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports. The award winners are are honoured for their "spectacular and most outstanding performance in the field of sports over a period of four years" at the international level.
The award was initiated in 1992 and Vishwanathan Anand was the first recipient for his accomplishments in the game of chess. The latest winners of the Khel Ratna were Bajrang Punia (wrestling) and Deepa Malik (para athletics) in 2019. Till date, 38 sportspersons have been bestowed with this award. The most Khel Ratnas have been awarded in the sport of shooting with eight shooters being among the worthy recipients.
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Only three cricketers, namely Sachin Tendulkar (1998), Mahendra Singh Dhoni (2007) and Virat Kohli (2018), have had the privilege to get this award. Not considering Sunil Gavaskar (who had already retired in 1987) and Kapil Dev (who was at the closing stages of his career when the awards started), following are the three Indian cricketers who might consider themselves distinctly unlucky not to have received this award.
#3 Sourav Ganguly
Sourav Ganguly had an illustrious career for India, both as captain and player. When Dada took over the captaincy, Indian cricket was in a turmoil under the cloud of match fixing allegations with big players like Mohammad Azharuddin, Ajay Jadeja, Manoj Prabhakar and one Test-old Ajay Sharma being banned and the great Kapil Dev's name also being dragged into the scandal.
In such a scenario, when even Tendulkar was unwilling to take over the reins of Indian cricket, Ganguly stepped forward and with his sheer leadership skills brought the team back on the winning track. This helped restore the faith of the passionate fans in the Indian cricket team.
Ganguly proved to be one of India's most successful captains. Some of India's greatest test wins came under his leadership. These include the 2001 Kolkata Test win against Australia which is regarded as one of the greatest comebacks of all time; the 2002 Leeds Test win when India chose to bat first on a green pitch after winning the toss; the 2003 Adelaide Test victory where India came back to win the test after conceding more than 550 runs in the first innings.
For the statistics, India won 21 of the 49 tests under Ganguly's captaincy with 11 of those wins coming on overseas soil. He also lead India to the 2003 World Cup final.
Ganguly's record as a player was also impressive with 7,212 test runs at an average of 42.17 and 11,363 runs in ODI cricket at an average of 41.02. He was also a very handy seam bowler with 32 wickets in Tests and 100 wickets in ODIs.
Although he was recommended for the Khel Ratna by the BCCI in 2004, he lost out to the worthy winner Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore who had just returned after bagging a silver medal in the Athens Olympics.
#2 Rahul Dravid
Rahul Dravid is widely regarded as the Wall of Indian cricket. He was a worthy lieutenant to Ganguly as the vice-captain of the Indian team which achieved great success both home and away. Think of any of the great Test wins for India and Dravid's performances would be at the forefront, whether it be the 180 vs Australia at Kolkata in 2001, the 148 at Leeds in 2002, the 233 and 72* at Adelaide in 2003, the 270 at Rawalpindi in 2004. or the 93 at Perth in 2008.
Dravid, the ultimate team man, was willing to take any role that was assigned to him. From opening the batting to taking the wicket-keeper's gloves, Dravid was willing to accept any challenge for the team's cause and came out with flying colours.
Dravid is India's most prolific batsman after Tendulkar. He scored 13,288 runs in Tests at a healthy average of 52.31 and 10,889 runs in ODIs at an average of 39.16. Apart from his batting, Dravid was also a very accomplished close-in fielder especially in the slips. His world record of 210 catches in Test matches is a testament to it. In 2004, Dravid bagged both the ICC Cricketer of the Year and Test Cricketer of the Year awards.
Dravid was recommended for the Khel Ratna by the BCCI both in 2006 and 2012, but he lost out to multiple-times billiards world champion Pankaj Advani in 2006, and Olympic medalists Vijay Kumar and Yogeshwar Dutt in 2012.
#1 Anil Kumble
Anil Kumble is undoubtedly India's greatest match winner, especially in Test cricket. He may not have been the biggest spinner of the cricket ball, but with his control and accuracy he proved to be a handful for all the batsmen. He was always India's go-to bowler, whether it be for taking wickets or for containing runs.
His biggest accomplishment was the 10 wicket haul against Pakistan at Delhi in 1999 where he single-handedly won India the Test match. The sight of Kumble coming to bowl with a broken jaw in the 2002 Antigua is one of the most inspiring moments in cricketing history, showing his grit and fighting spirit.
Kumble is India's most successful bowler in both Tests and ODIs. He has 619 wickets in Test cricket to his credit with 35 five-wicket hauls. In ODIs, Kumble bagged 337 wickets (including the incredible 6 for 12 in the Hero Cup final) at an economy of just 4.3 runs per over.
Unfortunately despite his terrific record and innumerable achievements, Kumble was never recommended for the Khel Ratna award.