Khomsan Thongkham patrolled the mid-line, one hand in the air; it was the last raid of Thailand’s match against Japan. The tall, young Thai captain had already done his part — claiming 10 raid points to put his team in the lead. He waited for the final whistle to blow to seal a 37-33 win over Japan, and more importantly, his country’s first semi-final finish at the Kabaddi World Cup.
Thailand had overturned a 24-30 deficit to emerge winners in the final group stage match in Ahmedabad on Wednesday. Not many matches have had the same competitive edge. But the third edition of the Kabaddi World Cup — the first one to be telecast live and presented on such a big platform — has been a wild, sometimes bumpy, often entertaining ride.
Thailand’s narrow win over Japan on Wednesday not only gave them a ticket to the final four, it also sprung them to the top of Group B. They finished above Iran due to a better score difference: 82 to 71. With Iran being the only kabaddi powerhouse in the group, the battle for the second spot was a hard-fought won. Three teams — Thailand, Japan and Kenya — were in contention for it till the final game, giving the event an edge of unpredictability.
Thailand, who were playing in a shadow of mourning for the passing away of their King last week, finishing first in the group also meant that Iran don’t clash with India in the semi-final. Matters were comparatively more straightforward in Group A and South Korea and India, at one and two, went through to the semi-finals.
With the spotlight focused on India, the team failed their first pressure test as they succumbed to a 32-34 defeat to South Korea on the opening day. Despite being in the lead for majority of the match, they saw South Korea surge through in the final three minutes. It was a much-needed wake-up call for the hosts, who had walked into the tournament as overwhelming favourites.
India’s closes competitors at the World Cup, Iran had looked infallible till their final group game. But with the team having already made it to the semis, they seemed to take it easy against Poland and paid the price for it. Poland captain Michal Spiczko put in a stunning all-round show to take his team to 41-25 victory. Iran’s defeat opened the doors for a possibility that they would avoid a clash against India in the semi-finals.
Battle of the newbies
As much as the event was about showcasing India’s supremacy in their very own ancient sport, it was about stretching the game to new horizons. The teams from Argentina, Australia and USA, with no discernible kabaddi background, generated a lot of curiosity.
The Australian team was made up mainly of Australian Rules Football while USA had some players with a background of American football. Both are contact sports, and hence the players seemed to possess the basic physicality and attitude required for kabaddi. But both the nations had roughly only three weeks to prepare and put together their squads for the World Cup and they struggled to translate their 'football' experience to the kabaddi mat.
Argentina team had spent a little more time in preparation. The team, made up of mainly Physical Education teachers with various sports background, showed a lot of guts but had no glory. The one match that they went in with a chance was against Australia, but fell short of the task. In a coup led by two Indian-origin players on team, Jasvir Singh and Kuldeep Singh, Australia defeated Argentina 68-45.
Argentina and USA were the only teams in the tournament to sign off with a win. They lacked tact, but both the teams brought an infectious sense of enthusiasm.
While it was a battle of the lightweights, the Kenya vs Poland match was one of the most entertaining of the group stages. The sport has been introduced for less than two years in the countries, which meant they were still naive but not completely unpolished. Both the teams went all-out into attack, and backed up by a blood-thirsty crowd, produced an exciting show.
Kenya’s athleticism and Poland’s strength, unmissable due to the players constant flexing of muscles, were two of the talking points of the tournament and were on full display during the match. Kenya won 54-48 but it was the kind of game that can give the sport some hope in the country once the World Cup is done with.
Group stage stars
Jang-Kun Lee is a big-match player, and he has proved it so far during the World Cup. Despite a slow start against India, he made the raid that took South Korea into the lead. And when the going got tough against Bangladesh, Lee once again stole the show. He made six successive raids to help South Korea edge Bangladesh 35-32.
The most effective raider of the group stages, however, has been Thailand captain Thongkam. The 6’1 raider, who has taken on the added responsibility of leading a young side, has the most number of raid points — 53 in five matches. He’s also second in the list of most successful raids.
Ajay Thakur and Pardeep Narwal have shared raiding duties for India, and have been clinical enough so far. India have let up pressure in any of the matches since the defeat to South Korea, and the two raiders have been the cornerstones of their dominance.
While Iran has a great team ethic, their defence is rooted in the solidity of their left corner — Fazel Atrachali. He has been the best defender for Iran and their showstopper so far, with 17 tackles points and 3.4 tackles per match average.
South Korean conundrum
Even before the teams gathered in Ahmedabad for the mega-event, the talk of the town was an India-Iran final. Iran are still smarting after their 2014 Asian Games defeat, where they squandered an eight-point lead over India in the final to eventually lose by two points. They have arrived in India with revenge on their mind and India were supposed to do their best to keep that threat at bay.
But South Korea have emerged, though not completely unexpectedly, to challenge that duopoly.
The team, which won bronze at the 2014 Asian Games, made their intent clear with a win over India in the opening game. The match had showed, as India captain Anup Kumar later observed, that the South Koreans have it in them to deliver at crunch-time.
As the group stages close, and the World Cup heads into the all-important knockouts, the question is whether the South Korean conundrum will come to haunt the two teams yet again.
Updated Date: Oct 20, 2016 19:13 PM