India's gold medal in the kabaddi event at 1990 Asian Games in Beijing had more significance than being the first ever yellow metal dished out for kabaddi at the quadrennial Games. For India, it was a saving grace, as it averted the nation from the ignominy of returning from the Asian Games without a gold in its kitty for the first time ever.
Since then, a kabaddi gold at the Asiad has been India's prerogative. Unpunctuated success has been a hallmark of Indian kabaddi teams at continental championships, and with every passing edition, the feeling of inevitability around the outcome has grown stronger. Opponents have improved, contests have become closer, but India's legacy in kabaddi has remained unscathed.
At Jakarta, where India landed with a squad oozing with generational talents, the script was expected to be no different. But one calamity led to another and India find themselves being forced to play audience to a final they have never missed before.
South Korea who became the first team to beat India in a World Cup match in 2016, repeated the feat at the Asian Games with a 24-23 win in the group phase. It set a nervy India on collision course with Iran in the semi-finals. Desperate for their first ever victory over India after three defeats in the previous finals – 2010 Asian Games, 2014 Asian Games and 2016 Kabaddi World Cup, Iran presented a strong, ruthless and a united front. They out-muscled and out-thought India throughout the forty minutes to hand them their heaviest defeat. A 27-18 score line spelt the end of India's campaign and arguably their monopoly in the sport.
But how did it happen? How did India lose its golden touch in kabaddi? What went wrong for the battery of Pro Kabaddi superstars who arrived in Jakarta with not just the reputation but also ability of winning kabaddi matches with authority? Let's analyse.
Flawed team selection?
The biggest talking point around the kabaddi team ever since the squad for the Jakarta Games was announced was the exclusion of cover defender Surjeet Singh and left-corner defender Surender Nada. India opted to go with a squad comprising six raiders, three all-rounders and three defenders. All three defenders were corner defenders, so there was no out-and-out cover defender in the side even though all-rounder Sandeep Narwal had the experience of playing in that position. However, whenever he did, he always had an experienced cover playing on the opposite side.
India played Deepak Hooda, primarily a raiding all-rounder at right cover. Hooda too has played at the position during the Kabaddi Masters in June that India won at a canter, but the presence of an experienced Surjeet at left cover perhaps made his job easier.
"If you play a defender in place of Messi, and expect him to score the same number of goals, you will never get that result. Deepak is a very good all-rounder but maybe he wasn't used correctly. A more seasoned cover defender should have been playing there especially in matches against Iran and Korea," Bhaskaran Edachery, former Indian kabaddi team coach told Firstpost after India's defeat.
India's weakness in the cover areas was first exposed during the early part of the game against Sri Lanka. It became all too evident against South Korea in the next game as the Indians failed with their dashes on many occasions. The confidence was drained and the covers were guilty of making too many eager and advanced tackles on the Korean raiders who are very difficult to catch on their escapes thanks to their agility.
To be fair, India corrected that problem to an extent against Iran. India's defence was quite disciplined. They didn't give away cheap points to their raiders and waited for errors to come from them. The problem was that this approach was too defensive against a uni-dimensional side like Iran that doesn't possess a strong raiding unit and heavily relies on their defence to win matches.
Iran's raiders barely troubled India throughout the game, but the lack of aggression from India allowed them to take the game to the do-or-die raids. Indian raiders were getting no joy against the depleted Iranian defence at the other end and the onus was on the defence to score tackle points and keep the scoreboard ticking.
Left corner Girish Ernak made a good start to the game, scoring two tackle points in the opening five minutes, but a tentative approach from the covers meant Iran raiders found the courage to go deep in Indian territory, target the corners and eventually score a few points in those areas as the game progressed.
If India had put pressure on Iranian raiders, the 2014 silver medallists would never have been able to execute their game plan of playing on the third raids, and India would have never felt the pressure, especially after making a good start to the game.
"Surjeet would have certainly made a difference to the team. Although it is easier to say it in hindsight, but I feel we would have been in the final today had he been there," Bhaskaran suggested.
So Surjeet was dearly missed. But that said, it is difficult to argue that India's defeats in Jakarta were solely down to flawed team selection. Even with the bunch of players that India had at their disposal, a gold medal should have been achieved.
So what else went wrong?
Burden of history, and fear of failure
For all the shortcoming in the defence, India were failed by its raiders. India had an embarrassment of riches in that position and each one of its raiders would have walked into every other side in the competition. In Ajay Thakur, Rishank Devadiga, Pardeep Narwal, Monu Goyat, Rahul Chaudhari and Rohit Kumar, the defending champions had a great variety in their raiding department. The plan to go with such a raider-heavy squad was to have a raider or a combination to tackle every problem. The blend of right and left raiders was perfect, while each raider had their own set of tricks up their sleeve. There was no reason for India's attack to fail so miserably as they did against Iran, apart from pressure.
"We always have close games at the Asian Games. Given the quality of our players, that should not be happening, but we come under a lot of pressure and give the opponents a chance. This time we have trained in such a way, where we want to kill the game early. We have the raiders to help us achieve that," Indian team coach Rambir Singh Khokhar had told Firstpost before leaving for Jakarta.
India seemed to have failed to buck that trend even in Jakarta despite training for it, but unfortunately, this team have paid a price for it.
There was an evident resignation among the Indian raiders in the latter part of the second half. After trying to wear down Iran who were reduced to just three men very early on in the game, the raiders had no answers to the defence that sat very deep and then pounced in unison at the slightest opportunity.
Numerically, India were in a superior position at half time when the scores were tied at 9-9. With the quality of raiders in their ranks, an Iranian all-out should have been a matter of time. But the more the game stayed in balance, the pressure on the Indians increased.
This team was already blemished for being the first Indian team to lose a kabaddi game at Asian Games and the pressure of the eventual embarrassment that failure to collect gold would bring weighed down India’s raiders as Iran's stringent defence refused to relent. With every passing minute, the burden of India's illustrious history became too overbearing. The helplessness of India's most talented raiding unit till date was a clear sign of it.
In addition, Ajay Thakur's absence from the mat due to an injury didn't help the cause. "Ajay is a leader. When your leader is out for the maximum time, you tend to lose your way and that's what happened. Our boys started well in the first five minutes but I was surprised that the speed and intensity lacked thereafter. Ajay's absence did make a difference," former captain Anup Kumar told PTI after the shock defeat.
While pressure certainly played a big part, India have always had to carry the weight of expectations that come with the favourites tag. So what other factors contributed in making the gold medal such a tall order for India.
Pro Kabaddi and its impact
A lot of voices after the defeat have credited the emergence of Pro Kabaddi League for Iran and South Korea’s improvement on the kabaddi mat. While it’s undeniable that Iranian and South Korean players have benefited from the PKL, it is far too convenient to overlook its positive impact on the Indian players. The Indians almost constitute of 80% of the players in the league and a good amount of the current squad have honed their skills playing in the league.
So while the league has helped the foreigners come to terms with the highest level in the sport, it has played a big hand in elevating the standard of the game within India.
The one factor though that might have worked against the Indians is the increased eyeballs on the sport and the accompanying scrutiny. The PKL has succeeded in making kabaddi a part of people’s casual discussions in their daily lives especially in urban areas. So the current team that went to Jakarta was perhaps the most talked about in the sport's history.
So the impact of PKL — not just in terms of improving the opponents but garnering more attention to the sport — on the results at Jakarta cannot be denied.
Iran's will to succeed
Iran had vowed to end India’s dominance in kabaddi after their loss in the 2014 Asian Games final. Their attempts were thwarted again in the 2016 Kabaddi World Cup final, but Iran were slowly getting there.
Their progress though suffered a dip last year. Poised to finally get that elusive win over India at the 2017 Asian Kabaddi Championship that they hosted, Iran performed below par. They were beaten by Pakistan in the semi-finals and couldn't even get the chance to play India on their own turf.
Lack of financial support is a problem Iranian kabaddi has always faced, but a rift between coach and players was an unwelcome addition. Former coach KC Suthar was thus given the marching orders and Gholamreza Mazandarani was placed in-charge.
The Iranian stamped his authority straightaway by banishing the PKL stars from the side. The likes of Fazel Atrachali, Abozar Mohajermighani and Meraj Sheykh were deemed not to be in a good physical condition to be in the side.
Coach Mazandarani took a team without these players to the Kabaddi Masters in June and reached the final. He made it clear at the time that the left-behind stars may not be afforded a chance to re-enter, and even though Fazel and Abozar made the Asian Games squad, captain Meraj was dropped.
The Iranians then had a brief preparatory camp in Jaipur ahead of the Asian Games where they trained with the Rajasthan team that included top raiders like Sachin Tanwar. In hindsight, it is difficult to understand whether India's hospitability towards its prime competitor be considered a blunder that stinks of over-confidence and arrogance or a genuine responsible gesture as the pioneers of kabaddi.
Despite their recovery after the Asian championship debacle, Iran had their share of shortcomings. A blunt raiding department over-reliant on its defence to carry it past the finishing line, was one.
However, Iran's strategy in the semi-final meant India were forced to play to their strength. Iran played with depleted numbers on the mat. After the first five minutes, Iran only had more than five men on court towards the end of the game. The unavailability of the bonus point meant Indian raiders were forced to take risks to score points and that played straight into the hands of Fazel-Abozar corner combination that barely put a foot wrong in the game.
With those two on the mat, Iran were able to fend off Indian raiders' threat even with just three men on the court and in fact made the most of that situations by scoring plenty of super tackle points. The defence was composed and took minimal risks. But when the time came to tackle, there was a great deal of cohesion in their moves.
"Iran got their strategy spot on. But credit must go to its players who executed it to perfection. It is very difficult to find flaws in that performance. Their strength is their corners and they did the bulk of the scoring. Their covers were fairly silent, but supported when needed. It was a superb defensive display," Bhaskaran analysed.
Iran have unfinished business. The win over India would go down the drain if they fail to beat South Korea to the gold on Friday. For a nation that’s nurtured its will to succeed at kabaddi in the Asian Games for most of the past three decades, the moment of truth is here.
For India, bronze does not even qualify as a consolation. But maybe watching a new kabaddi champion that strengthens their very own sport's bid to be a global one, might just suffice for now.
Updated Date: Aug 24, 2018 15:43 PM