We are more than a week into the 2016 Kabaddi World Cup, and after the two previous editions that lasted four days each, this edition certainly feels like one.
Making a return after nine years, kabaddi's premier tournament looks stronger, bigger and better. With twelve countries from six different continents, the spread is great for the sport, and despite a gulf in class between the participating nations, the competition has been quite a spectacle so far.
The kabaddi caravan couldn't have had a better start with Republic of Korea upsetting the sport's pecking order and getting the better of hosts India. However, there haven't been any further upsets and landslide wins have become the theme since then.
With the World Cup reaching it's halfway mark, the tournament has thrown up some aspects that show how the sport is placed on the global stage, who are winners at it and who need to catch up. Here are few takeaways at the mid-point of the 2016 Kabaddi World Cup:
Defence is the best form of attack
Defence is the best form of attack is an old cliche in sport that keeps popping up every now and then. But in kabaddi, it is pretty much an important aspect of the game. The defense in kabaddi plays a big role in scoring points, and not just saving them, and the World Cup has gone a long way in highlighting this.
The high scoring matches are a clear indication that the defences have been all over the place throughout the course of the tournament. From newcomers USA, who had managed just two tackle points in their first two games to defending champions, to giants India, all have struggled with their defences at some point.
But if you look at the points table and then at the teams with the the most tackle points per game, it has great similarity. Iran, who have been by far the best defensive unit in the World Cup, lead the way with 15.3 tackle points per game. followed by India, Japan and Republic of Korea. At the halfway point, it's these four teams who sit in the semifinal qualifying spots. England and Thailand, the two third-placed teams in the group, follow these four teams when it comes to average tackle points.
Thus it's clear that it's sound defences and not rampant raiding that's helping teams lead the race for semifinal qualification. Or to put it simply, the best four teams in the competition are the ones with the top four defences.
Abundance of talent, but absence of team work
The 2016 Kabaddi World Cup began with few household names with most of them donning the Indian colours. However, a week into the tournament, a host of new faces have made a mark in the world of kabaddi. From England's Temi Tope Adewalure to Kenya David Mosambayi, Poland's Michal Spiczko or Thailand's Khomsan Thongkham, there hasn't been shortage of talent on display in the tournament. England's Tope, who is the tournament's most successful raider with 46 raid points, has won several hearts, while Mosambayi's excellent leadership and 30 all-round points to go with it, are quite impressive, as are Aruduzzaman Munshi's all-round exploits for Bangladesh.
But teams possessing all these talented players have found it hard to mount a challenge. The main reason for that has been their team's over reliance on individual and lack of it on team work. Kabaddi demands of a mix of individual brilliance and great team ethic, and teams like England, Kenya and Poland have failed in the latter aspect. While their raiders have won points single-handedly, the co-ordination and understanding required to forge a potent defence has been lacking. Among the top ten raiders, Jang Kun Lee is the only raider from the teams that sit in the top two places of each group, clearly proving that there is no shortage of talent, but a serious lack of cohesion in lower team that's separating them from those at the top.
Rising from the shadows of India and Iran, South Korea prove they are genuine contenders
When the tournament began, India and Iran dominated the talks when the title contenders were discussed. Many Indian players highlighted Iran as their greatest threat. Republic of Korea, who had a few star from the Pro Kabaddi League, were considered dark horses at best. However, in the very first game, the Koreans shattered all pre-tournament notions and staged a great comeback win over favourites India. The win for the Koreans was no fluke – they had strategy for every Indian player and executed to perfection. Their raiders kept on chipping away points when star man Jang Kun Lee couldn't fire in the beginning of the game. The Korean defence hunted in packs all evening and tamed the likes of Rahul Chaudhari.
With five minutes to go when the Koreans seemed down and out, Jang Kun Lee rose to the occasion and exploited weaknesses in the Indian defence to perfection. It was an all-round effort and it was repeated against Argentina and Bangladesh. Starting as favourites against Bangladesh, the Koreans trailed till the final five minutes only to carve out a win in the dying minutes. Team ethic, aggression, the resilience, the Koreans have exhibited every quality of a champion.
The men in blue and red are out of the shadows of India and Iran and are ready to not just challenge, but also beat them. With the Koreans favourites to reach the final on 22 October, expect them to give their opponents in that game a hard time.
Packed with PKL stars, India remain less than sum of it's parts
When the 26 Indian probables were named, one thought India could name two teams out of them and both of them could reach the final. Such was the quality among Indian ranks that the World Cup appeared a foregone conclusion. But the 'Dream Team', as the Indian side packed with superstars from the PKL is called, haven't done justice to the talent that they possess. While a defeat to Korea in the opening match left the hosts red-faced, a big win over debutants Australia wasn't enough for Anup Kumar's side to convince it's fans.
The Indian defence didn't look the part in the first two games, as the home side struggled to form crucial partnerships in defence. In the raiding department too, India failed to develop a lethal partnership until the game against Bangladesh when Pardeep Narwal and Ajay Thakur took the opponents to the cleaners, working brilliantly in tandem.
The Indian defence showed signs of gelling against Bangladesh as India produced a performance of note, but the Balwant Singh-coached outfit are still to hit the heights they are capable of. It may all come together for the defending champions as the tournament reaches it's business end, but for it's first half, India as an unit haven't been equal to sum of it's parts.
Quick starters are big winners
Big one-sided victories have been the trend in the 2016 Kabaddi World Cup so far. Teams have either fired on all cylinders or folded up rather tamely. Only four out of the 18 matches played so far have finished with the winner winning by a margin of more than seven points. The key behind these lofty wins have been real quick starts by the winning teams. We have often seen the team that races to a big lead early, goes on to win the match handsomely. Slow starters have often been punished and punished heavily.
Teams thus have struggled to break the momentum and script a comeback into matches, with Korea against Bangladesh and Kenya against Poland being the only teams to win the game after trailing in the game by a huge margin at the start. Lack of experience is a reason why teams haven't been able to stop the rot once it's started and completely fade away after a slow start. Even in tight games, teams who have had a sluggish start have suffered. India, who endured a slow start by their standards against Korea, paid the price for handing early momentum to their rivals. So at the halfway stage, the key to success has been simple. Hit the ground running and kill your opponent off before it can settle down.