Despite the presence of the talismanic Sushil Kumar in their ranks, it is Bajrang Punia who has emerged as India’s brightest gold medal prospect in the Asian Games wrestling competition.
After a disappointing showing in the Asian Championship earlier this year where he had to settle for a bronze, the Haryana wrestler has warmed up for Jakarta with gold medals at Tbilisi Grand Prix and Yasar Dogu International meets. These gold medals are good confidence boosters as the standard of contest in the Asian Games is expected to be several notches higher. Punia’s biggest challenge in the 65kg category will come from Daichi Takatani from Japan who was the Indian’s nemesis in the quarter-final of the Asian Championship with the Japanese going on to become the champion.
Punia, silver medallist at the last Asian Games, is a protege of Yogeshwar Dutt and is famous for his supreme stamina, showing remarkable endurance levels throughout the course of his bouts. He also has a great gut-wrench technique especially while attacking the leg. Gut wrench is a commonly-used technique to outwit a rival where a wrestler wraps his arms around the opponent's midsection from behind and attempts to flip him.
Sushil’s Asian Games preparations were dealt a crushing blow when he lost to an unheralded Polish grappler in the first round of the Tbilisi Grand Prix. The Wrestling Federation of India allowed the 2012 Olympic silver medallist to skip the trials to prepare for Jakarta. Sushil has been undergoing extensive training in Georgia, but many experts believe that at 35, Sushil’s quick-silver reflexes on the mat have slowed down considerably.
In the last four years, he has been laid low by injuries and controversies. However, India’s most famous wrestler was not willing to give up. He redeemed himself on his comeback, winning the Commonwealth Games gold medal without breaking a sweat. But the Asian Games 74kg category event will pit Sushil against some of the world class wrestlers like Ganzorigiin Mandakhnaran of Mongolia and Muslim Evloev of Kyrgyzstan. Sushil’s performance in Jakarta will be a good indication of whether the veteran has it in him to go till the 2020 Tokyo Olympics or he will walk into the sunset after the Asian Games.
Pawan Saroha, better known as the husband of Geeta Phogat, is determined to script his own success story. He has made a spirited comeback from a career-threatening knee injury to get a berth in the Indian team in the 86kg category. The 24-year-old has been training in the USA and can spring a few surprises against higher-ranked opponents.
The other wrestlers in the fray include Sandeep Tomar (57kg), Mausam Khatri (97kg) and Sumit (125kg).
In the absence of Geeta and Babita Phogat, who have missed out on the berths, Vinesh will be the sole torchbearer of the Phogat family legacy at the Asian Games. She has been training in Hungary under Woller Akos and recently won the Spanish Grand Prix. Vinesh was the lone gold medallist for India in women’s wrestling in this year’s Commonwealth Games.
The 23-year-old, known for her lethal counter-attacks, will have to stave off strong challenges from Sun Yanan of China and Yuki Irei of Japan in the 50kg category. Vinesh does not have too many fond memories of her previous bouts with Sun as the Indian had to be stretchered off during their quarter-final bout in the Rio Olympics suffering a knee injury. The two renewed their rivalry at this year’s Professional Wrestling League (PWL) where Vinesh went down to the Chinese.
The spotlight will also be on Sakshi Malik, a bronze medallist at the Rio Olympics, though the grappler did not have too many successes at the international level after that. Known for her double leg attacks, Sakshi will start as an underdog in a field headlined by Purevdorjiin Orkhon of Mongolia, the reigning world champion in 62kg class. The Indian had beaten her in the Rio Olympics, but since then the Mongolian had steadily risen up the charts and asserted her dominance winning the gold in the Asian Championship this year. The other female wrestlers in action include Pinki (53kg) Pooja Dhanda (57kg), Divya Kakran (68kg) and Kiran (72kg).
Both the men’s and women’s national teams have been without a foreign coach since 2016 which prompted many of the top wrestlers to employ personal trainers from abroad. The federation had zeroed in on Hossein Karimi from Iran and Farniev Irbek Valentinovich from Russia to take charge of the men’s and women’s freestyle teams. But disagreement over their pay package has become a stumbling block.
The Indian wrestlers have also been struggling to adapt to the new weighing in rule introduced by the international body. Unlike in the past when the weighing in of the participants took place a day before their fights, the wrestlers are now weighed on the day of their contests. Earlier, the Indian wrestlers who cut down their weight to make it to a particular weight category had a full day to recover. This included cutting down on intake of water to lose weight but under the new clause, losing weight on the day of the bout drastically can be tricky, adversely affecting the stamina and strength along with chances of dehydration.
Now retired Yogeshwar Dutt was the sole gold medallist at the last Asian Games where India finished with a total of five medals from the wrestling mat. If current form is anything to go by, the Indian grapplers face a daunting task ahead to improve on this performance in Jakarta.
Updated Date: Aug 17, 2018 15:42 PM