Padam Bahadur Mall sat on a rocky outcrop, flat as a table top, enough for him to perch perfectly while he waited for tea. The clouds hung low on the Dehradun-Mussoorie highway. It was a TV interview. The cameraman wanted the perfect backdrop. Finally he found one. Cars zoomed past in the frame, the drop into the valley making it picturesque. It was a weekend and tourists were finding their way to Mussoorie, all escaping the June heat of the plains. It was 2004.
“It’s a wrong notion that we cannot produce more boxers who could give us medals at the Asian Games and the Olympics. More than anything, we need to train our coaches and make boxing compulsory in schools. It also gives you that competitive edge so badly needed in life,” he had said, sipping the strong yet milky tea.
Mall, India’s first ever Asian Games boxing (60kg) gold medallist at the 1962 Jakarta Games spoke about Hawa Singh, double Asian Games gold in 1966 and 70’, the only Indian boxer with that kind of record. He was extremely warm when describing Dingko Singh’s (98’ Asian Games Gold) technical skills and predicted that, within a decade, India would find its way into the top echelons of boxing.
With the Indian team on their way to Jakarta, primed for the 2018 Asian Games, Mall’s words ring true. The Indian boxing structure may not be belching out gold but the organisation and coaching hierarchy have created a model wherein we see a trickle of medals at the Commonwealth Games, Asian Games, World Championships and Olympics. And, there is promise of more to come.
Ten boxers, seven men and three women will be in Jakarta trying to better the five-medal haul at the 2014 Asian Games; Mary Kom won gold while the rest picked up bronze medals.
There is no Mary Kom this time around, but Vikas Krishan Yadav lurks in the 75Kg (middleweight) category, hopeful of picking up a third consecutive Asian Games medal.
Nobody has that record and he is tied with Hawa Singh with consecutive Asian Games Gold and Vijender two from Doha and Guangzhou (bronze and gold). 26-year-old Vikas is right up there in terms of technical superiority and temperament. Packing in a lot of experience, Vikas is one of India’s brightest hopes. Of course, as most would warn, it’s always the draw that counts in the initial stages. But having won the Commonwealth Games gold earlier this year, Vikas is eyeing a big prize before he decides to test his gloves in the professional ring.
High Performance Director Santiago Nieva admits that the draw could play a crucial role in where India would finish on the medal table. “We know we are good but it is in competition that you are tested,” he said. “In Jakarta, we will know where we stand.”
The Asian Games has always seen tough competition. Setting the standard is Kazakstan, who picked six gold medals in 2014 at Incheon with South Korea bagging two and one each going to Mongolia and Thailand. India’s best came in 2010 when our boxers bagged 2 gold, 3 silver and 4 bronze medals.
BFI President Ajay Singh, with ambitious plans to transform boxing into a consistent medal-winning sport, warned it won’t be easy but also showed enough confidence in the boxers saying, “It’s not the Commonwealth Games. But I do expect every boxer to come back with a medal.”
The team’s bluster comes from the fact that it has four World Championship medallists — Vikas and Shiva Thapa (60kg) and Sarjubala Devi (51kg) and Sonia Lather (57kg). Also figuring in the team are the CWG medallists Amit Panghal (49kg), Gaurav Solanki (52kg) and Manoj Kumar (69kg).
In the women’s section, Sarjubala Devi, Sonia Lather and Pavitra are the three boxers representing India in the 51 kg, 57 kg and 60 kg category. Even though coach Shiv Singh points to the uncertainty of the draw, he does believe that medals and experience gained at the World Championships will fetch podium finishes in Jakarta.
“Sarjubala is our upcoming boxer and she has a medal in the Worlds with Sonia Lather bagging silver in last year’s World Championship and another silver at the Asian Championships. Pavitra has got her chance. So we are hopeful of a good performance and I am sure we will get a good result.”
Shiv believes that the team will deliver and it is fair to have expectations of a medal in Jakarta. “Boxing is such a sport where we cannot make predictions,” he points out.
“But our kids will do well. Like Pavitra has gold in the Asia Test event and Sonia Lather has a silver medal in Asian and silver in World Championships. Sarjubala has a medal in World Championships. Overall the team is quite balanced.”
Italian coach Rafaele Bergamasco believes Sarjubala Devi has a great chance to be on the podium and that Mary took a good decision in not going for the Asian Games.
“This year we don’t have Mary and she isn’t going because of two reasons because she has a lightweight category and not 51 kg and also because this year we have many competitions. After the Commonwealth Games, we have the Asian Games and then the World Championships. It is not possible to have good performance from all athletes throughout the year. And I spoke to Mary and she told me that it is not possible for her to go for the Asian Games. She is very intelligent and said ‘okay coach it is your decision’.
“I think 51 kg is very good for Sarjubala. I do understand that this category is very strong. But Sarjubala is a contender for the podium. I don’t know what colour but possible medal for Sarjubala. Sonia Lather has big experience. She has a gold medal in the World Championships and a medal in Asian Championship.”
Sonia Lather is channelising her frustration at being left out of the CWG squad by focusing on the Asian Games. She wants a medal and that too a gold. Fitness is a big part of her routine.
“We are focusing a lot on fitness and technique,” explains Sonia. “Even in fitness we are doing a lot like running, short sprints, and for ring we do a lot of technical stuff. And daily we get sparring sessions with different partners.”
For Lather, it’s not about the opponent. As she explains, it’s for her coach to figure out the opponent. Her job is to focus on her strengths. “I analyse my videos,” she says. “I analyse myself on where I am weak. I don’t see my opponent’s weaknesses. I see my own weaknesses and prepare by watching my own videos. I leave the strategy and figuring out the opponent to the coach.”
There is also a lot of hope on Shiva Thapa coming good. Since becoming the youngest Indian boxer (18 years) to qualify for the 2012 London Olympics, it’s been quite a roller-coaster ride for the Assam-based boxer. Eight years back, he won the Youth Olympics silver medal. But ambition didn’t match temperament and skill was taken for granted. Yet he has shown courage to remain in the mix and now comes back with a slightly changed technique. One also needs to see whether moving up to 60 kg pays off or not. Thapa is the only Indian boxer with three consecutive Asian Championship medals — gold in 2013, bronze in 2015 and silver in 2017. But after missing the CWG, there is hunger. Thapa believes the Asian Games are a massive challenge. At the moment, like all the other boxers in the team, he too can’t wait to step into the ring.
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Updated Date: Aug 17, 2018 13:49:58 IST