If someone was coaxed into watching the 2016 Kabaddi World Cup after hearing tales of India's prominence in the sport, s/he would perhaps have doubts about the wits of those hailing India as a kabaddi superpower. Such was the deficiency in the hosts' play in the opening two games of the tournament. But facing the possibility of an early exit from the World Cup of a sport by, from and for India, the pioneers of kabaddi finally found their touch.
Against Bangladesh, a country that has challenged India in more sports than one in recent years, the men in blue entered the court with the possibility of the unthinkable — bowing out of a Kabaddi World Cup before semi-finals — looming over their heads. A loss to South Korea in the opening game and uncertain performances thereafter meant this possibility was actually discussed.
By the end of the 40 minutes, however, talks of India's early exit seemed like a distant memory, if not a bad joke. Balwant Singh's men excelled in every department of the game and took Bangladesh to the cleaners. A 57-20 win wasn't the most impressive in terms of numbers as compared to some of the other wins in this World Cup, but in terms of the quality of kabaddi on show, this pipped the others.
Things were fairly even for the first seven minutes; the two teams were tied with a scoreline of 4-4. It was turning out to be deja vu for the home side, as a similar start against Korea eventually led to their demise.
India's assistant coach K Bhaskaran had spoken at length to Firtpost on live video before the game, and he had stressed the need for his players to be alert for the entire 40 minutes.
Captain Anup Kumar told in the post-match press conference after the win on Tuesday that his players realised that they needed to be more careful with the Bangladeshi defence given their shaky start. "At the beginning, their defence was playing well. Our players instantly realised that we needed to be more alert. Hence, we were more careful thereafter and started getting points in our raids," Anup told reporters.
However, there were multiple other factors at play. Firstly, and most importantly, the defence. A sign of worry going into the crucial game, the hosts' defence delivered big time. Coach Balwant Singh stuck with the same line-up that did well in patches against Australia, and the players repaid his faith in style. Sandep Narwal at the right corner and the Manjeet Chhillar-Surjeet chain in the cover area were sharp. After a few early hiccups, they started getting their tackle timings spot on. The entire team appeared to be in synchronisation while going for tackles and the Bangladeshi raiders hardly found any joy in the Indian half.
Unlike the previous games, India leaked just four bonus points against Bangladesh. It proves that the hosts tightened up their defence considerably, and made Bangladesh nervous. The points on their raids dried up and all the pressure was on their depleted defence.
Personnel changed in the second half, but the effectiveness of the Indian defence remained the same. In fact, the introduction of Surender Nada gave them further bite. The left-corner defender was lethal. With his ankle-holds, he gave the Indians a new dimension and Bangladesh had fresh problems. He pounced on anything that came into his range and his execution was perfect. With Dharmaraj Cheralathan still not at his best, Nada's six points against Bangladesh are likely to hand him a start against Argentina.
Secondly, the Indian raiders, especially Pardeep Narwal, worked out Bangladesh's strategy very quickly. The visitors were keen not to give India any bonus points in the match and catch them while attempting a few. Captain Anup was caught in that way a few times and Bangladesh were neck-to-neck with the defending champions at the start.
Pardeep Narwal, who usually doesn't rely on bonus points and toe touches, thus came in handy. The Patna Pirates raider made great use of his agility; instead of going deep into the court in search of a touch on the corner defender, he constantly kept changing directions during his raids. That threw Bangladesh's strategy of catching a raider deep into the court out of the window. They had no answers to Pardeep's agility and guile and ended up giving him eight raid points.
The Indian coaching staff warrant huge credit for bringing on Ajay Thakur in place of Deepak Hooda in the 11th minute of the game. Hooda had done alright before that, but he, like his raiding partner Pardeep on the day, is a left raider and Bangladesh were starting to set a strategy for that. Throwing Thakur, a right raider, into the mix added to the visitors' woes. Moreover, with his long arms, Thakur also didn't have to go too deep in the court to get his points. He attracted tackles from the corner defenders quite brilliantly, and they fell into his trap and became victims of his long reach. Once the Himachal Pradesh raider came on the mat, Bangladesh just couldn't live with the Pardeep-Thakur combo and completely collapsed. The duo ran rings around them and before they could grasp their breath, the game was gone.It was a smart decision to get Thakur on, as the 30-year-old had shown signs of form in the previous games as well.
Mohit Chhillar, who had a nightmare against South Korea, had a good outing on Tuesday, coming on in the second half; his understanding with Surender Nada was palpable. The duo was responsible in winning quite a few tackle points in the second half and coach Balwant Singh will be forced to have a look at the the combination that's worked wonders in the Pro-Kabaddi League.
Against Bangladesh, India showed a glimpse of their ruthless self. Also, the performance was testimony to the strength in depth that the men in blue possess. The hosts didn't even need Rahul Chaudhari and Jasvir Singh and yet looked flawless. They rotated their players at will and this had no impact on their performance.
The Indian coach, however, refused to label the team that did so well against Bangladesh as his best combination and suggested that he will use the entire squad and their individual qualities as the situation demands. "We have a team of 14 players. All are excellent players and everyone is equal. The performances may be up and down, but I have full faith that each an every player in this team can be of special help in different situations," said Singh after the game.
His clever use of Thakur proved the variety of options India have, and for their opponents, it's almost frightening.
The Koreans and the Iranians would have witnessed the Indian kabaddi team's destructive power against Bangladesh. For them and the others who lie in India's path ahead, it's time to be afraid, be very afraid, as this was just a sampler of what to expect from the hosts. There's plenty still in the Indian locker. The signs are that it's about to come together. The world better watches out!