The Kabaddi World Cup has returned with renewed vigour after a gap of nine long years, and coming on the back of the Pro Kabaddi League's success, it's a milestone moment for the sport. While fans waited nine years for this milestone, kabaddi's next big marker came almost immediately.
South Korea, a team with little record of success in the sport, upstaged the pecking order in the very first match. They came out on court at 'The Arena' by TransStadia in Ahmedabad, played kabaddi from the top drawer and beat the mighty Indians, overwhelming favourites to lift the World Cup on home soil.
But it was more than just a win for an underdog; Korea's win was the greatest upset the sport has ever witnessed. It was also only the second time that India have lost a kabaddi game in a major international tournament. Before Friday's result, kabaddi was all about India and the rest of the world, but South Korea changed that and have thrown the floor open for competition. The Kabaddi World Cup was supposed to change the face of the sport, and it couldn't have asked for a better beginning.
For the hosts though, it was a bitter pill to swallow. A good percentage of India's billion-odd people had their eyes glued on its kabaddi team, perhaps for the first time ever, and unfortunately there was agony in store. The two-time world champions seemed set for a victory until the 35th minute, when Jang Kun Lee's magic struck them. Seven raid points in the last five minutes from the Bengal Warriors raider ultimately sealed their demise.
While it was the Korean's heroics that will catch everyone's eye, it was the subdued performance from a disjointed Indian side that kept the door open for Lee to do all the damage.
A big reason for India being heavy favourites for the World Cup was their superior quality. However, the Koreans didn't come out on the field thinking that way and brought down Indian captain Anup Kumar in the very first raid of the game. That was a very big message for their illustrious hosts: The visitors were unwilling to pay heed to India's pedigree as a kabaddi nation. By the fifth minute, the Koreans had a 4-2 advantage and the chance for India to hit the ground running, went quietly out of the window.
The hosts underestimated the need to intimidate their opponents. They expected the Koreans to have jittery nerves considering the magnitude of the occasion, but instead, they were calm, well-drilled and portrayed aggression with great control. On the other hand, India were uncharacteristically subdued.
Coach Balwant Singh had chosen to go with Rahul Chaudhari and Jasvir Singh as their raiders over the in-form Pardeep Narwal in their staring seven, but the duo, known for their aggression, looked toothless against an extremely well-oiled Korean defence that worked so efficiently in chains.
The pair failed to conjure even a single raid point in the first nine minutes, encouraging the Koreans with the scores tied at 9-9. It meant Anup Kumar, who was supposed to play more of an anchor role, had to get more aggressive, risk getting caught and thereby spend more time on the bench.
Eventually, a super raid from Rahul Chaudhari brought India an all-out, but the deficit remained under control for the Koreans who were motivated by India's inability to go for the kill. Pardeep Narwal was introduced late in the first half, but by that time, the visitors had settled into an excellent defensive rhythm and the Most Valuable Player from PKL season four wasn't allowed to have his way.
A five-point lead at the interval gave one the impression that India had it under control, but a spirited fightback from the Dong Ju Hong-led side early in the second half exposed a few more cracks in the Indian defence. The star-studded rearguard had managed to keep Lee and Co fairly quiet in the first half, but that was more down to flashes of excellence from its talented individuals than a cohesive team effort.
India's very first tackle point came from Dharmaraj Cheralathan, who single-handedly blocked Jang Kun Lee. The powerful block did the trick, but it was a tad risky as India's left corner chain that included the 41-year-old was broken. Then Manjeet Chhillar made a few blocks and ankle-holds on his own that were strong enough to hold the raider until his team-mates stepped in to help. The home side rode on their talent but their defensive chains were often disjointed. The Korean coaching staff spotted it and their player began exploiting that post the interval.
Don Geon Lee's two-point raid in the 35th minute showed signs of how disorganised India's defending was and Jang Kun Lee's match-turning super-raid, where Manjeet didn't get the necessary support from his chain partner totally exposed India's frailties.
Moreover, Mohit Chhillar was having an evening to in the right corner. The most expensive player in PKL was far too wary of Jang Kun Lee and gave him far too much respect. The star Korean raider amassed five bonus points in the game, a tally that was more than the whole Indian team put together. Mohit's subdued play was almost wholly responsible for it. At the other end, Cheralathan was also not having a great time, and it was only after Manjeet switched to the left corner position that India found some joy there, as the all-rounder made a crucial super tackle.
The Puneri Paltan captain was India's best defender on the day and his aggression bagged him a high five. Anup Kumar too brought all his experience into play and almost guided the host nation to a victory, but against an extremely gutsy Korean side, it wasn't enough.
Bringing on Deepak Hooda and Sandeep Narwal didn't make a great deal of difference as the team completely lost their organisation beyond that as the visitors stepped up the heat to claim the win.
However, despite an upset loss, the men in blue would be pleased with the timing of the result; it gives them ample opportunity to make amends. It should also be a wake-up call and a lesson learnt. Balwant Singh's side need to make more of the crowd support and superior quality. They must grab the game by the scruff of the neck and let opposition teams know who the boss is.
This defeat will make it clear that teams won't bend over in front their legacy and it will have to be achieved by actions on the field. India are well capable of that.
Bringing in Pardeep Narwal and Sandeep Narwal in place of Jasvir Singh and Mohit Chhillar might give Anup Kumar and Co some more bite and help them get their campaign back on track against Australia on Saturday. But they need to get rid of the notion that their tournament will start only when they face Iran and start playing like champions and tournament favourites in every game that they face henceforth.