The latest edition of Asian Wrestling Championships in New Delhi, that ended on Sunday, saw India rack up a record haul of 20 medals across all three formats. The event opened with Greco Roman competitions where Sunil Kumar ended hosts’ 27-year wait for a gold medal. Four bronze medals followed through Arjun Halakurki (55kg), Ashu (67kg), Aditya Kundu (72kg), and Hardeep (97kg) as India recorded their best-ever performance at the competition in the Greco Roman category.
Records were broken in the women’s category too as the Indian contingent ended the Championships with eight medals — three gold, two silver and three bronze — their biggest haul at the event.
Among men, Ravi Dahiya (57 kg) was the sole gold medallist for India in freestyle category. Four silver and two bronze in the men’s freestyle category rounded off the campaign for the hosts who finished second on the team charts, behind Iran.
Here are some key takeaways from the six-day event:
Bajrang, Vinesh and the enduring Japanese riddle
Star Indian wrestlers Bajrang Punia (65kg) and Vinesh Phogat (53kg) were billed to bask in golden glory at home; instead, the duo returned with a bronze each, much to the disappointment of the partisan crowd.
While Bajrang was the defending champion — he had beaten Kazakhstan’s Sayatbek Okassov in Xian, China in the final of the 2019 edition — Vinesh had set out to better her third-place finish from last year.
India’s leading medal hopes for the Olympics lost to their far-superior opponents from Japan, who are known for their speed and agility, especially in lighter weight divisions.
It may be argued that Vinesh was, in part, a victim of a tough draw that put her against her nemesis Mayu Mukaida in the first round. However, what can’t be contested is the fact that the Indian never even looked like threatening the Japanese.
Mukaida was all over Vinesh from the start and put up a defiant show of obdurate defence and sneaky attacks to race to a 6-2 win. This was Vinesh’s third loss to Mukaida in as many meetings — the previous reversals coming at last year’s Asian Championships (10-0) and World Championships (7-0).
Vinesh took heart from the fact that she finally managed to take two points off Mukaida and insisted that her slow start was a (barely believable) strategic punt, but her inability to skate past Mukaida’s defence was out in the open. The Indian went for leg-holds on at least five occasions, mostly in the second period, but only one of those moves was successful.
By contrast, Mukaida converted each of her three chances. Staying low in her stance and keeping her foot away, the World Championships silver medallist forced Vinesh to come at her, and pounced on every chance Vinesh offered.
Takuto Otoguro was even more clinical against Bajrang. The 21-year-old, who defeated Bajrang 16-9 in the memorable World Championships final two years back, had endured an average 2019 that saw him struggle with injuries and form.
In New Delhi, though, Otoguro was at his best, slipping past Bajrang’s attacks and counterpunching with ease. A far superior grappler technically and tactically, he tired out the Indian with his immaculate defence, and converted Bajrang’s attacking moves to his advantage.
To his credit, the Indian’s much-documented weaknesses in leg defence have, to a great extent though not entirely, been addressed, but Bajrang will have to find a way to get past wrestlers of the class of Otoguro should he wants a decent shot at the podium in five months’ time.
Ravi, Deepak reaffirm promise
While much focus in the men’s category was justifiably on Bajrang, youngsters Dahiya and Deepak Punia used the stage to reaffirm their class. Ravi, playing in the 57 kg class, won India's lone gold in men’s competitions, while Deepak, a silver medallist at last year’s Senior World Championships in 86 kg division, took home a bronze.
Ravi, unlike most of his counterparts, moved around the mat at pace to create as well as block angles. His swiftness ensured he got in the side-on positions more often than not which helped him engineer takedowns. His defence benefitted from his movements too as most of his opponents had a tough time attempting leg-holds on him. Once he got past 2019 Asian silver medallist, Japan’s Yuki Takahashi, there was no stopping Ravi, who staked his claim for the Tokyo podium with yet another impressive outing.
Deepak, a junior world champion whose transition to the senior stage has been a revelation, paid the price for being too passive in his semi-final bout against eventual gold medallist, Japan’s Shutaro Yamada. In that match, Deepak was slow on his feet and Yamada gave him no chances to attack. Though Yamada could not effect a single takedown on the Indian, the passivity and push-outs were enough for him to secure an attritional win.
In the bronze medal playoff against Iraq’s Issa Abdulsalam Abdulwahhab Al Obaidi, Deepak was a different beast and won the bout on technical superiority. Later, he admitted to not being at his absolute best against Yamada, partly due to the injury he sustained while training after returning from a camp in Russia. The 20-year-old had six stitches over his right eye.
This loss apart, Deepak looked the part at the big stage, and with some work on his agility and mat awareness, he can be a force to reckon with.
End of the road for Sakshi?
Four years back at the Rio Olympics, Sakshi Malik had ended India’s 11-day medal-less streak with a memorable bronze against Aisuluu Tynybekova of Kyrgyzstan. That medal, secured in the dying seconds of the bout, promised a glorious future for the then-23-year-old.
However, having won just one gold in four years since that Rio medal — at the Commonwealth Championships, 2017 in South Africa — her career is at the crossroads. Competing in the non-Olympic 65kg weight class, Sakshi won a silver medal after going down to Japan’s Naomi Ruike in the final. In fact, Ruike beat Sakshi twice on the same day — her earlier loss coming in her very first match where the Japanese prevailed 2-1.
Ruike, like most Japanese, was quick on her feet and water-tight in defence, but Sakshi’s limitations didn’t help her cause either. The Indian has a tendency to concede crucial points in the final moments — ironical, considering her Olympic medal was won in the final seconds of the bout — and that weakness almost cost her the semi-final against Nabira Esenbaeva, where Sakshi somehow managed to hold on to a 5-4 advantage in the face of relentless attack from the Uzbek.
In the final, Sakshi showed some ingenuity in widening her stance to keep her legs away from the taller Ruike and at the same time stay low, but had no answer to Japanese’s power and pace.
Sakshi’s domestic challenger in the 62 kg weight class — an Olympic category — is the young Sonam Malik. Sonam jumped to limelight after beating Sakshi at the national trials ahead of this Championship, and the two will meet again in fresh trials to determine who goes to next month’s Asian Olympic Qualifiers.
“I don’t see her as a challenger. She is very young and wants to do well. I want to do well too,” is what she told Firstpost on her upcoming trial. It may be a brave attempt to play down a potentially career-defining match, but deep down, Sakshi would know that time is running out. The high noon of Rio is long gone.
Second rung rising
While the big names such as Bajrang, Vinesh and Sakshi failing to come up with a performance of note, India’s young guns stoked hopes. Deepak, yet to complete a year in the senior circuit, followed his World Championships silver with a bronze in New Delhi. It says a lot about the youngster’s quality that a result outside the top-two is being considered a below-par return. Still a work in progress, Deepak is known for his speed and stamina, and has all the makings of a genuine world-beater, albeit stiffer challenges await.
In the 79kg class, 18-year-old Gourav Baliyan impressed with his relentless energy, mat awareness and easy power. He lost a close final 5-7 to Kyrgyzstan’s Arsalan Budazhapov, but did not show any big-stage nerves. Soon after the final, with quiet confidence shining through his glistening muscles, he made his intentions clear of bidding for the 74kg Olympic class in time.
In the Greco Roman category, 19-year-old Ashu, on senior debut, went home with a bronze in the 67kg category. The youngster was due to play last year’s Asian Championships, but had to miss the event as he dislocated his left shoulder at the selection trials. Winning a medal on return, Ashu gave a strong testament to his character and class.
Among women, Sonam (62kg) and Anshu (57kg) impressed on senior debut. While Anshu had defeated seasoned Pooja Dhanda in the national trials in January, Sonam eked out a last-second win over Sakshi at the same trials. The twin wins over seasoned wrestlers threw the youngsters in the spotlight, and the duo did not disappoint.
While Anshu won the bronze, Sonam lost to world No 1 Aisuluu Tynybekova in the third-place playoff. With foreign coach Andrew Cook drilling the basics of stance and defence in the women’s team, India can hope for their promising youngsters to shine on the big stage, sooner than later.
Find latest and upcoming tech gadgets online on Tech2 Gadgets. Get technology news, gadgets reviews & ratings. Popular gadgets including laptop, tablet and mobile specifications, features, prices, comparison.
Updated Date: Feb 24, 2020 18:46:25 IST