The kabaddi event at the 2018 Asian Games truly belonged to Iran. Gold medals in both men's and women's categories lifted Iran to the summit of Asian kabaddi, ahead of India who had till that point dominated the sport in every sense of the term.
However, there was another revolution that was overshadowed by the Iranian rise. South Korea, participating in just their third Asian Games kabaddi event, surprised everyone by reaching the final in the men's category. The Koreans inflicted India's first-ever loss in the Asian Games in the group phase to top their group. In their brief history, South Korea already had a few feathers in their cap. Becoming the only team to beat India in a World Cup game and winning a bronze medal at the 2014 Asian Games being a few.
South Korea's 2014 bronze didn't quite upset the pecking order of international kabaddi, but their silver in Jakarta certainly did. Iran's achievement was much larger and deserved all the plaudits, but South Korea's run to the finals was a success story in equal measure.
Ashan Kumar, who was actually appointed as a physiotherapist to the South Korean kabaddi team, operated as the coach. Apart from a camp in Hyderabad, the former Asian Games gold medallist spent four months in South Korea to prepare the team for the Jakarta Games. Four months is a really short period, but that was the least of his difficulties.
"I was in South Korea for four months prior to Asian Games. We used to practice regularly and rigorously. The problem that I faced there was the lack of players. I was working with just 12 players. If someone got injured, there was a situation where we used to train with just 4-5 players. But I still managed to train them well and get them ready for the Asian Games," Kumar, who now coaches Puneri Paltan in Pro Kabaddi, told Firstpost.
"We had very little time and I urged the players to make the most of it. I made them realise how every moment was going to be crucial for them and they took my words very seriously. All the players were very dedicated and that's how they improved their game in such a short span of time despite all obstacles," he added.
South Korea's strength is the agility of its players and willingness to function as a disciplined unit, but the team wasn't blessed with a great deal of talent. Barring players like Jang Kun Lee, Seong Ryeol Kim and Tae Deok Eom, few players had experience of playing kabaddi at the highest level.
"Korean players are not of the same standard as Indian players. Here in India, the level is much higher, so the approach for me changed quite drastically. There is a big difference in the way I trained the Koreans compared to the way I train the players here. I had to start from the very basics there and our aim was to improve their skills, something we don't need to do here in India," said Kumar, the former Services coach.
Despite winning the bronze in their own country in 2014, few took note of the improvement the nation made in the sport. However, reaching the final and competing for gold, has helped changed perception towards kabaddi in South Korea. Kumar feels genuine hope that South Korea can become a powerhouse in kabaddi sooner rather than later.
"South Korea's progress from here depends on a lot of factors. You cannot generate interest in an entire nation with just 12 players. We somehow managed to produce a brilliant environment in those four months that allowed the team to do so well," Kumar stated.
"For the first time, the kabaddi team has been talked about in the South Korean media. Reaching the final has got the nation's attention to the sport. So for me, there is hope that they can develop kabaddi at the school level and university level. Spreading the game is very important as once you get more people involved, progress is guaranteed," he added.
Commenting on the ways India must receive the humiliating defeats in Jakarta, Ashan Kumar feels the days when India could take international kabaddi events for granted are long gone.
"The standard of international kabaddi has gone up now. We can't take any competition for granted. No team will fear any other team. Success and failure in international events will depend on the efforts every team takes before the event," said the Arjuna Awardee.
Iran captain Fazel Atrachali questioned the fitness levels of the Indian players, and that's a front where the competitors have started to score over them. Kumar believes, lack of fitness cannot be an excuse for Indians as they have a great ecosystem to develop as players.
"In India, we have a huge pool of talent here in India. Where there are so many players, there shouldn't be a concern with respect to fitness. Fitness decides the fate of any player. When such upsets happen, it is important that you learn from it and become more serious about improving yourself. I feel India must not take this lightly and focus on correcting the mistakes," Kumar said before signing off.
Updated Date: Oct 15, 2018 19:06 PM