A burnt child dreads the fire.
India's growth in stature at the 2016 Kabaddi World Cup has been a classic case of that. Coming into the competition as defending champions and heavy favourites, there was an air of invincibility about Anup Kumar's side. But in the very first game, South Korea shattered that notion by handing them a 34-32 defeat.
It was the biggest upset in the history of the sport and India were left red faced in their own backyard. Since then though, the hosts have steadily improved with every passing game, hammering the chinks in their armour. The swagger is back, so is the style, as the defending champions gets ready to play Thailand in the semifinal on Friday.
Thailand have surprised everyone by making it this far in the competition, but their progress is hardly down to pure luck. A disciplined, well-organised outfit led by the mercurial leader in Khomsan Thongkhamp, the Thais are a team that is ready to go toe to toe with the giants of kabaddi.
Khomsan's side is very similar to the Koreans. They are a well-knit defensive unit with strong chains and, just like the Koreans, possess a champions raider in their skipper, who's the most successful raider in the tournament with 53 raid points as of now.
India were undone by Lee and Co in the opening encounter, and Thailand will pose a similar challenge. The home side though will be hell bent on not repeating the same mistakes they committed against Korea, especially with little room for error in a do or die game.
“Mistakes are not good, because if we make any mistakes in the semifinals, we will be knocked out of the tournament. We reflect on the mistakes we made against Korea and we will make sure we don’t repeat them," Anup Kumar had said after the win against England that sealed India's semifinal passage.
While Lee and Khomsan appear to be similar, with both being left raiders, the key difference between them is that the former relies more on toe touches and bonuses, while the Thai captain on hand touches. So for India's corner defenders who haven't really fired this competition, facing Khomsan will be a slight relief as compared to Lee who goes for them.
However, the World Cup's top raider so far has other qualities up his sleeve and one could say his qualities are a mix of Ajay Thakur and Pardeep Narwal – India's two main raiders. Like Ajay, Khomsan is a big figure and has a long reach. While on the other hand he is also quite agile and his sudden surges towards the opposite corner have left most defenses crippled. That's something one could also say about India's Pardeep.
In defense, all-rounder Tin Phonchoo has been their most successful defender and will test Ajay Thakur and Anup Kumar, playing at the left corner position.
The home side though have looked like their real self in the last two games. Everything has clicked for them. The defense has looked sharp, the raiding combination of Pardeep Narwal and Ajay Thakur has been almost unplayable and players sitting on the bench also look in great touch.
The Ajay-Pardeep duo have amassed 74 raid points among them so far and stopping that partnership will be the greatest challenge for Thailand. With Khomsan likely to give the Indian defense problems, it will depend on how the Thai defense holds up against India's marauding raiding partners. That could ultimately decide the fate of the match. If the defense keeps on leaking points, it will put huge pressure on the captain to score raid points single-handedly against an Indian defense that would have highlighted him as the danger man.
India’s assistant coach K Baskaran has full faith in the team's abilities and is convinced the team will play to their full potential irrespective of the opponent. “The team is playing to their full potential. They are giving their best. If the opposite team also plays with the same confidence and same passion, maybe the margin could be low. We will give our best against whichever team we face in the semis,” Baskaran said after the win against England.
After winning four matches in a row, India would be hesitant to make changes to the starting seven who appear to be a very settled unit. However, coach Balwant Singh may be tempted to hand starts to Surender Nada and Mohit Chhillar, considering the duo function extremely well as corner defenders when played together. It's an area of slight concern for India with Sandeep Narwal and Dharmaraj Cheralathan scoring just 11 tackle points between them.
Captain Anup Kumar, however, suggested that the team could function equally well with any set of players the coach picks. "All our players are equally good. Everyone is playing well. So it doesn't matter who plays as we have top quality players. I'm sure the coach will select the best team," Anup told reporters gathered at a press conference ahead of the semifinals.
Thailand too wouldn't be willing to change their team that beat a formidable side like Japan, and it won't be a surprise if they take to the mat with same set of players that started against Japan.
Ajay Thakur vs Tin Phonchoo
Ajay has been India's most successful and consistent raider in the tournament. The home side's improvement in form has been directly proportional to the lanky raider discovering his touch. The 30-year-old thrives on momentum and it will be down to Thailand's left corner Tin Phonchoo to keep Ajay quiet.
The Ajay Thakur-Tin Phonchoo battle could well decide the destiny of the game and the Thai left corner has his task cut out against one of the sport's all-time greats.
Khomsan Thongkamp vs Manjeet Chhillar
This may not be a straight forward battle in terms of the position on the court, but if you look purely at the personnel, Khomsan vs Manjeet will be the big battle. For India, winning this battle would almost certainly guarantee victory. The failure of the Thailand skipper would totally puncture their raiding department and leave too much for their defense to do against the in-form Indian raiders.
Khomsan isn't someone who goes too deep into the court and Manjeet will have to be wary of his sudden changes in direction. With right corner Sandeep Narwal still not firing on all cylinders, it will be down to Manjeet to trap Khomsan during his raids.
The hosts will be hoping that Manjeet – their man for the big occasion – steps to the plate like every time and powers them into another World Cup final.
Thailand could have stood a much better chance against India's if champions wouldn't have received a wake-up call in their opener. The ghosts of the defeat to Korea must still be haunting the Anup Kumar-led side and that will ensure there is no complacency in the camp. This will make it difficult for newcomers Thailand despite vastly impressing in the tournament. The deadly combo of burning fire, red-hot form and feet firmly on the ground makes India firm favourites and Thailand will have to play out of their skins to achieve the unimaginable.
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Updated Date: Oct 21, 2016 12:02:50 IST