India's 2016 Kabaddi World Cup campaign started out with several questions marks facing them. A first-match loss at the hands of South Korea left the hosts plenty to ponder. But four games later, and more importantly four wins later, Anup Kumar and co have managed to turn those question marks into exclamation marks, one by one.
Disorganised defense, broken defensive chains, and patchy raiding form had plagued the Indian team that was hailed as the 'Dream Team' at the start of the tournament. Despite being favourites, they had plenty of problems, which the South Koreans exposed. But slowly and steadily, India have managed to get rid of each one of them, and against England on Tuesday, they produced a completely flawless performance.
England aren't the strongest team in the world, but they have certainly had their moments this World Cup. Against India though, they were made to look like a bunch of rookies who have been thrown on the kabaddi mat for the first time in their lives.
The Indian defense was like a carnivorous plant, and the English raiders like the insect that walked into their trap. Right cover Surjeet and right corner Sandeep Narwal, being particularly efficient, were all over the Englismen. A combined total of 13 points between the two tells you the story.
The raiders on the other hand went to an altogether different level. Pardeep Narwal who has earned a name for himself for running riot in the opponent's half, finally showed that side of his game. He went into the English half and kept on scoring points as if plucking low hanging fruits from a tree. Agility, trickery, confidence – the young raider put up quite an exhibition. During a raid in the first half, Pardeep got England's right corner out with a swift surge. He faked an outstretched leg as if trying to get a toe touch, before a flash of his left hand caught the defender off-guard and sent him to the bench. The Englishmen failed to get his upper body away as he tried to avoid a toe touch and fell into Pardeep's trap.
During another raid in the first half, out came the trademark dupki as he shrugged off a dash with minimal effort. It almost made the defender look silly as he was flunked over by Pardeep after the dupki. The clever, quick surges finally worked wonders for Pardeep in the World Cup and that's great news for the home side going in the knockout stages.
On the other hand, Ajay Thakur, who's now the tournament's third most successful raider, scored his third super ten in a row. Having failed to work out a potent combination with Rahul Chaudhari and Jasvir Singh in the first match and then trying to do the same with Rahul and Pardeep, India have found a lethal partnership in Ajay and Pardeep. The right and left raider combination has worked excellently for the hosts and hasn't allowed any opposition defense to settle to a defensive pattern with both corners being attacked equally and consistently.
What that has done, is allowed Anup Kumar to stay on court for large parts of the forty minutes and overlook proceedings carefully. As much as kabaddi is a game of great strength and agility, it's equally played between the ears. And Anup Kumar is that brain of the Indian side. He may not raid a lot, he may not tackle, but you will find him whispering in the raider's ears before he goes to raid. More often than not, that raider has returned successfully.
With every passing game, a key member or two of the Indian side have found form. To the credit of coach Balwant Singh, he has stuck with them and they have carried that form forward. Ajay, Surjeet, Pardeep and Sandeep are classic examples of that. India struggled to get Manjeet-Surjeet combinations working in the first two games, but in the last couple of matches, those cover defenders have come to the party. They have pounced on every half opportunity and succeeded almost every time.
Right corner Sandeep too gave glimpses of his aggression and tackling against England. A few quick pursuits, one of which ended in a super raid shows that Sandeep is beginning to enjoy himself out on the mat. Known to always comes good at the business end of a tournament, as proven in the Pro Kabaddi League, his performance against England suggests he may be set for a take-off.
The bench too is in great shape to contribute when required with Rahul Chaudhari, Nitin Tomar, Mohit Chhillar and Surender Nada all in fine form. Rahul scored an impressive super ten against Argentina in the previous game, while Nitin Tomar showed what he's capable of against England with his seven raid points. Surender has been excellent whenever called upon and Mohit has improved with every game.
The only worry if have to look at it that way has been at the left corner. Dharmaraj Cheralathan has consistently failed to score tackle points. His presence hasn't been felt in certain games. One may term him as India's weak link, but his lack of points hasn't made the Indian defense look fragile. He has done alright and not made many mistakes. He has played a part and formed a part of a cohesive defense. However, with Surender Nada firing all cylinders every time he's given a chance, it's time Balwant Singh realises that ankle-hold specialist is an upgrade over the slightly pale-looking Cheralthan right now. The two high fives against Bangladesh and Argentina were followed by three tackle points against England and the raiders trying to pinch bonus points from India's left corner have been terrified by Surender's presence. India need that presence, that threat in the knock-out stages as it will add another dimension to the side.
This though is a problem of plenty for Balwant Singh as most sides in the world would gladly play Cheralathan over their left corners. It's a coach's choice and he may be pardoned for making that considering the 41-year-old defender's vast experience.
The win against England wasn't India's biggest in the competition, but it was certainly the most comprehensive. While in previous games, India seemed all charged and on a mission, the win over England was achieved rather effortlessly. It was like a daily routine that was being carried out, it was almost clockwork. There was no chink in the Indian armour and the players knew it. Ruthless and supremely confident, India made a mockery of their opponents.
The host needed time to achieve this level of efficiency, but now it can be said that this Indian team is near perfect. They go into the semifinals with all their flaws ironed out, and ready to be crowned champions once again. Despite the increased challenge to their throne this time, India, after their win over England, certainly appear the team to beat at this World Cup.