Controversies hound India's wrestling squad for Asian Games as fit-again Sushil Kumar leads medal hopes
While the Asian Games selection in most of the weight categories have been done on the basis of trials, the likes of Sushil Kumar, Bajrang Punia, Vinesh Phogat and Sakshi Malik were handed out automatic berths
Indian wrestling finds itself grappling with another round of controversies, this time over the naming of the squad for the upcoming Asian Games.
While the selection in most of the weight categories have been done on the basis of trials, Commonwealth gold medallists Sushil Kumar, Bajrang Punia and Vinesh Phogat, along with 2016 Olympic bronze winner Sakshi Malik, were handed out automatic berths. Rahul Aware, gold medallist at the Commonwealth Games, refused to attend the trials.
Talking to Firstpost, Aware said; “I am hurt that preferential treatment was given to only a few wrestlers. I had requested the federation to allow me to skip the trials as I had also won a gold medal in the Commonwealth Games like Sushil, Bajrang and Vinesh. Till the 5th of June, the officials assured me that my plea will be considered but on the 10th, they went ahead with the trials.’’
Incidentally, the selectors are yet to pick a wrestler to represent the country in Aware’s weight category of 57 kg as three contenders for the berth — Sandeep Tomar, Utkarsh Kale and Ravi Kumar — had identical number of wins and losses in the trial competition. The retrial is slated for Wednesday.
“After rejecting my request to skip the trial, the federation did not give me sufficient time to train. I am disappointed to miss out as I had already beaten the likes of Sandeep Tomar and Amit Dahiya during the trials for the Asian Championship and Commonwealth Games,’’ explained the 26-year-old from Maharashtra.
There were murmurs of discontent over Sushil’s selection without having him fight any of the domestic challengers in 74kg, with yet another contender Praveen Rana claiming he was not given a chance to prove himself. Sushil had won against Rana during the selection trials for the Commonwealth Games before supporters from both camps came to blows after the bout. Nursing a knee injury, Sushil pulled out of this year’s Pro Wrestling League and the Asian Championship. But the two time Olympic medallist was at his imperious best in the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, winning the gold medal while hardly breaking a sweat.
In an exclusive chat with Firstpost, Sushil said he has fully recovered from the knee injury and he is happy with his preparations for the Asian Games. “I will be travelling to Georgia soon along with my coaches Vladimir Merstervishvlli and Satpal for further training,’’ said the Indian wrestling superstar. Sushil had skipped previous two Asian Games in Guangzhou and Incheon, but won a bronze in the 2006 Doha Asian Games. Sushil’s main contenders in Jakarta are expected to be Asian Championship gold medallist Muslim Evloev of Kyrgyzstan and Ganzorigiin Mandakhnaran of Mongolia — who is a two time bronze medalist at the world championship.
“At the Asian Games, all the competitors are tough. You cannot take anyone lightly. But going by my preparations, I am definitely in reckoning for a medal,’’ says Sushil. After being laid low by injuries for two years and his continued absence from top flight competitive wrestling, there were question marks about his future. “I am here to stay and my main focus is the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. My training is geared towards the big event in two year’s time,’’ says the 35-year-old.
Along with Sushil, India’s best bet in men’s freestyle wrestling is Punia (61kg), who is currently training in Georgia. A protégé of Olympic medalist Yogeshwar Dutt, Punia won a silver in the last Asian Games and has been a regular among the medals in the Asian Championships. He won a gold in the 2017 Asian Championship in New Delhi and bagged a bronze in this year’s event in Kyrgyzstan. In the 86kg, the spotlight will be on Pawan Kumar Saroha, the husband of the pin up girl of women's wrestling in India — Geeta Phogat. The 24-year-old had won a bronze medal in the 2014 Commonwealth Games, but will be up against a very tough field of grapplers from Kazakhstan, Mongolia and Iran. The Indian squad is expected to take part in an exposure trip before the Asian Games.
In the selection trials for women wrestling, there was a surprise when India’s lone gold medalist in the year’s Asian Championship –experienced Navjot Kaur — had to bite the dust against the vastly improving Divya Kakran — a bronze medalist at Commonwealth Games earlier this year — in 68kg weight category.
With Navjot missing out, India’s best chance of a gold is from Vinesh, who has made a good recovery from the injury she suffered during the Rio Olympics and bagged a silver in the Asian Championship, following it up with a gold in a relatively weaker field in the Commonwealth Games. “What makes Vinesh stand out is her supreme strength and she is cut above the rest from the other Indian wrestlers,’’ felt Kuldeep Malik, the coach of the Indian women’s team.
In a stiff competition in the 50kg class, Vinesh is set to run into some of the world’s top-ranked wrestlers from Japan and China. Sakshi, after her historic performance in Rio, is yet to replicate her success in other big tournaments, and the Asian Games will be a big opportunity for her to set the record straight. “A positive change in Sakshi is she has become more attacking and this will make her more potent in the bouts ahead,’’ adds Kuldeep.
In the last four editions of the Asian Games since 2002, India have bagged just a solitary gold medal in wrestling, which came in Incheon in 2014 through Yogeshwar Dutt. Tipped as the virtual world championship, thanks to the presence of top-ranked wrestlers from China, Japan, Kazakhstan, Iran and Mongolia, Indian grapplers will once again have to raise their game by several notches to win medals.
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