Dubai: By the time the umpire signalled for the end of the game, the Kabaddi Masters final between India and Iran was dead as a contest. The buzzer raid of the final yielded three points for Iran’s Mohammad Ghorbani. It mattered little, but Indian players were still keen to contest the decision. Rishank Devadiga was readying himself for another raid when the umpire’s raised arms pointing towards the mid-line suggested there was no time and need for it.
Ajay Thakur’s jump of ecstasy got the Indian team out of their game mode as the team broke into joyous celebrations. It was a moment to savour and cherish. Weeks of hard work and intense kabaddi had culminated into something tangible.
Ajay Thakur and Co’s uninterrupted march to the Kabaddi Masters trophy in Dubai was characterised by their relentless aggression. The Indian team decimated quality oppositions all through the competition with a ruthless streak, never taking foot off the gas.
At certain times, India’s fight was against themselves. A big win, however, wasn’t a reason to relax until the points target for the particular match was met.
Against Kenya, India had the game wrapped up fairly early, but their raiders kept the intensity up until they reached the 50-point mark, that was asked of them by coach Srinivas Reddy.
“My instructions to the players at the start of the tournament were clear. Treat every raid as do-or-die raid. Don’t slow down the pace of the game. We have the best players among all teams and there is no need for us to be reserved in our approach,” Reddy said after the final.
India entered the tournament with a raider-heavy squad. There were six specialist raiders in the squad of 14 along with three all-rounders. The all-rounders were mainly assigned defensive jobs, but their presence on the mat allowed raiders to attack from the word 'go'. Deepak Niwas Hooda is a very accomplished raider, but was primarily used as a cover-defender. With him on the court, India never ran the risk of running out of raiders.
India have always had the upper hand over their opponents in terms of skill and talent, but in recent times Indian teams have opted for control over raw aggression.
Under Anup Kumar in the 2016 Kabaddi World Cup, India were happy to play the game on the third raid against stronger opposition. The primary aim for raiders was to survive the raid and keep up the numbers on the court. The onus was usually on the defence to score points by choking the raiders for points and drawing mistakes.
Anup, in the latter part of his career, was known as the ‘King of the empty raid’ for his ability to avoid getting tackled and staying on court. The former U Mumba captain had a remarkable kabaddi brain. Under his leadership, India used to draw teams into a battle of chess and out-think them.
There were two strike raiders to do the damage while Anup’s priority was to stay on court for the entire 40 minutes and call the shots. However, the slightly subdued approach allowed opposition teams to stay in the contest for a tad longer. On days when India’s raiders would fail, the opposition would fancy their chances.
In the opening game against Korea, India took too long to get going and surrendered the momentum to the Koreans. With match going down to the wire, all the pressure was on India to get the result. Korea, who had nothing to lose, played without any mental baggage and earned the victory.
In the final against Iran, India were trailing by five points at the interval. It was the brilliance of Ajay Thakur and Nitin Tomar that got India back in the contest. After that, Anup’s genius took over to seal the victory. However, India were made to toil very hard for it.
In 2017, after deciding to phase out Anup, India were forced to change their approach as they didn’t have the kind of captain who could out-think opponents at will and guide the team out of sticky situations. Thakur was handed the reins after his impeccable show in the World Cup. He came in with his own ideas.
“In matches against Korea and Iran, we started very badly. It put us under lot of pressure in the end as the onus to win was on us. We have learnt from those games and we wanted to avoid pressure. After we loss against Korea, it took us a lot of time to recover. You don’t always have such time in big competitions,” Thakur said.
“So my plan was to put the opposition on the back foot early on, demoralise them in the opening exchanges. Once a team loses its belief, the game becomes very easy, especially for a team like us who have so much talent in the raiding department. Our plan was to attack in every raid and that’s worked very well for the team,” the Indian captain added.
The number of empty raids is significantly low for India under Thakur in comparison to Anup’s time. This new, gung-ho approach has allowed young raiders like Devadiga, Monu Goyat and Rohit Kumar to flourish. The youngsters have enjoyed raiding with a license to go for the kill without any pressure.
The odds of India winning yet another Asian Games gold have certainly improved after this competition, but the biggest takeaway from the Kabaddi Masters for the World champions is the change of guard. India have moved on from Anup Kumar, one of its most influential captains, and adopted a fresh approach under Ajay Thakur, who is now the new face of Indian kabaddi.
With two gold medals under their belt, India, under their new flamboyant leader, have made a fine start. But with the Asian Games and the World Cup on the horizon, they will have to hit their peak sooner rather than later. What a treat it will be to watch!
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Updated Date: Jul 01, 2018 16:53:14 IST