India vs Iran! The game that everyone has been waiting for, the game that was supposed to pit two of the strongest teams in the Kabaddi World Cup 2016 against one another. It will finally happen, and it will decide the destiny of the world cup. The game has all the ingredients to be a worthy final, and after a series of one-sided games, the tournament's last game could be its best.
India and Iran have long had a kabaddi rivalry, stretching over two decades. The two have met in four major finals (two World Cups and two Asian Games) and India have won gold every single time. However, the one loss that will hurt Iran the most was the last one: At the 2014 Incheon Asian Games, they squandered an eight-point lead in the dying minutes to lose 27-25.
Margins of defeat, however, have been reducing steadily, and this would be a silver lining for Iran, although silver is probably a colour they are sick of by now! Captain Meraj Sheykh has made it clear that only a gold medal would do for the two-time World Cup silver medalist.
Ten days ago, that prospect appeared brighter than ever, with India scratching for their best form as Iran steamrolled every opponent that came their way. However, the manner in which India demolished Thailand in the semi-final on Friday was evidence enough to suggest that the defending champions had hit top gear.
Before the semi-finals, India had been coasting along pretty well, but were up against Thailand, an opponent that had hugely impressed in the World Cup. They took their game to the next level, a place few others could reach. The Indians seemed too quick, too sharp for the Thais and by the time they could grab their breath, the game was already gone.
The combination of Pardeep Narwal and Ajay Thakur has blossomed through the course of this World Cup, and the duo put on its best show till date. The two attracted the Thai defenders to make a slightly advanced tackle, and their opponents obliged. The result: A combined tally of 25 raid points.
The change in defence also did the trick, as Surender Nada picked up four tackle points playing at left corner, a position where India had previously struggled to find great joy.
However, tracing India's progress in the last five games would only give you an inaccurate assessment of the hosts, as they haven't really faced sides with any sort of kabaddi pedigree. Their only tough encounter this tournament was their opening match against South Korea, and that ended in defeat.
But numbers suggest that Anup Kumar's men have slowly regained their touch and head into the final at the peak of their powers. Against Korea, India scored just 10 tackle points, then repeated that tally against Australia. In the latter game, the Australians' inexperience to deal with the Indian raiders was exposed, and the hosts were comfortable winners. There was a marked improvement in the raiding department though, as India doubled their tally from the previous game and didn't allow Australia to trap them even once.
Thereafter, against Bangladesh, the raiders produced a similar performance, but this time the defence clicked in tandem. The Indian defending in the first two games was uncharacteristic of the champions and a tally of 20 tackle points against a formidable Bangladesh side meant they had put that right.
The defensive points rose to 24 in the next game against Argentina, while the raiders also hit the average of their previous two performances. The Argentina game went a long way in calming the hosts down after the early jitters and confidence was back.
Against England in the final group game, it was evident. The duo of Ajay-Pardeep put on a show as India racked up 42 raid points. The defence didn't score a lot of points, but also didn't allow England many points. A lowered tally of 12 tackle points had a lot to do with avoiding injuries, but the hosts were under firm control of proceedings.
As India reached the semi-final, every passing performance appeared to be their best and it was no different in the semi-final against Thailand on Friday. A total of 42 raid points could have been a lot more had India decided against taking their foot off the pedal.
While the hosts have had an easier ride to the final since the opening day, but stats show they have constantly been improving. In the end, you can only beat what's in front of you, and India have done that in style.
The Indians had always highlighted Iran as their greatest rivals in the World Cup and would need no added motivation in the final. Even though Iran will come hard and give it their all, one actually expects the Indians to do the same.
"Every team in this World Cup is here to win. I'm not surprised that Iran think they can beat us. But we want to win and feel we can win the World Cup. I won't say anything now and we will do the talking on the court," said Indian captain Anup Kumar after his side's win over Thailand.
Both teams are packed with power and there's little to choose between the two sides on that front, but in terms of technique, there is bit of a daylight between the two. "Iran is a very good team, but I feel we have the best technique in the game. Our raiders and defenders are superior in technique and we are confident of our abilities," Anup added.
The biggest worry for Iran will be the effortlessness with which India demolished Thailand and England. They were ruthlessly efficient in those games and it appeared that they had plenty left in the locker. Iran were watching when Thailand was being decimated and would hope they wouldn't be one again in the final on Saturday as India threaten to run riot.
Pardeep Narwal vs Abozar Mighani: This promises to be the mother of all battles. The two players have come to the fore for their national teams this World Cup. Abozar was more of an unknown quantity than Pardeep, but has been a revelation in Iran's defence. The 27-year-old has been one of the best right corner defenders in the World Cup and will test Pardeep.
The young Indian raider has been by far the best in the game, carrying on from his exploits in the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL) that earned him the best young player and most valuable player awards in successive seasons. Pardeep was unplayable against Thailand, and Iran must find a way to stop him or kiss another gold medal goodbye.
Meraj Sheykh vs Surjeet: This is a battle where the Iranian captain may hold the edge. Meraj stamped his class against Korea. Scoring seven points, he led his team back into the contest from a tight corner. The all-rounder has the skill, the temperament and the character to win a final single-handedly and India will be wary of him.
With Meraj not being someone who attacks the corner a lot, it will be critical for the right cover to stop the raider. India's Surjeet has been in great nick and has usually started games well. Even though one may feel Meraj has the edge in this contest, Surjeet will believe he can pull off a coup and hand India another gold medal.
Ajay Thakur vs Fazel Atrachali: This is a titanic battle. India's best raider in the World Cup will be up against Iran's best defender. The two might have come up against each other on many occasions in the PKL, but no stage is bigger than this. Ajay is just four points short of becoming the World Cup's top raider and if Fazel can stop him from doing so, Iran will be in with a great chance.
There has been nothing that's stopped Ajay Thakur in this World Cup, but there isn't anything close to Fazel Atrachali he's faced till now. The 30-year-old raider will have to be wary of the deadly ankle-hold which Fazel possesses and try and use his long arms to negate his threat.
This could well turn out to be the battle that decides the encounter.
The game would be similar to the semi-final between Korea an Iran where tactics takes over flair, where every inch will be fought for but eventually with India's quality and sublime form, Iran may well be forced to be mere admirers of their hosts' superiority on the court.
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Updated Date: Oct 22, 2016 13:20:18 IST