PU Chithra's wonderful effort to win the women's 1500m gold medal, Ajay Kumar Saroj's men's 1500m silver and Dutee Chand's women's 200m bronze medal in a photo-finish hogged the limelight on the concluding day of the 23rd Asian Athletics Championships at the Khalifa Stadium but the discerning trained their focus on the 4x400m relay races at the end of the night.
Chithra, who was not entered for the IAAF World Championships in 2017 after she won the 1500m title in the Asian Championships in Bhubaneshwar, will be hoping that the Athletics Federation of India does not deny her the chance to compete at a higher level. Ajay Kumar Saroj, who won the men's 1500m in 2017, delivered a good kick and picked up a deserving silver medal in Doha.
For all that, the larger focus was on the two 4x400m relay teams since AFI raised expectations by saying that the real target was the Tokyo Olympic Games next year. Liked the mixed relay team on Tuesday, the women picked up silver with a time of 3:32.21 while the men's team had to suffer the ignominy of being disqualified after finishing second.
It could be easy to say that the women's team suffered because of Hima Das' absence and the men's squad could have done better with Dharun Ayyasamy as part of it. Of course, these two runners would have made a difference to their respective quartets, but India has invested quite heavily in developing a larger bunch of runners who can step in efficiently.
Despite visibly tiring over the last 100m, MR Poovamma managed a sub-53 seconds lap. It was stirring to watch Saritaben Gayakwad move India from third position to being a front-runner by the time she had run 200m " she finished in 52.33 " and that let VR Vismaya be the first to take the position for the anchor leg. Vismaya also managed a very good time of 52.16.
The team was hurt by the absence of a fourth runner who could dip in under 53-seconds. That would have been Hima Das but the teenager hurt her back during her opening 400m heat on the first day and was confined to the sidelines. Prachi Chaudhary's 55.2 seconds, the slowest among the 16 runners from the top teams here, did not provide enough room against Salwa Naser's charge.
Featuring in her eighth race in four days, the classy Bahraini decimated the 20m lead on the anchor leg as she took her squad from fourth place to gold medal. Her split time of 49.70 seconds was jaw-dropping indeed. India would have needed a bigger gap than the 2.35 seconds advantage that Vismwaya had at the start of the leg. Vismaya finished 2.46 seconds slower than Salwa Naser.
It was amazing to see Salwa Naser make light of a sizable gap between her and Vismaya with her energy that got the handful of spectators at the Khalifa Stadium on their feet. For the second night running, Vismaya took on the challenge of running astride Salwa Naser with aplomb. The two races will have sharpened her as a quarter-miler.
The men team finished second in 3:03.28 behind Japan, before they were disqualified under IAAF Competitions Rule 163.2 as Muhammed Anas Yahiya was ruled to have impeded China's Lei Yang on the third leg. India were never in the lead after a poor opening lap by Kunhu Muhammed who handed over the baton to KS Jeevan in the fifth place.
Jeevan turned in a surprisingly quick second leg in 44.7 to move India to the third place and give the team hope. Muhammed Anas Yahiya completed his lap in 45.96 " only the third best among those running that lap " but India was 1.23 second behind the Japanese and 0.33 seconds behind China.
Even a commendable anchor run by Arokia Rajiv (44.38 seconds) was not enough to bridge the big gap with the leaders, though he got past Wu Yuang on the back straight. It was a pity that the man credited with running the fastest leg of the night ended up losing the silver medal because his teammate had been ruled to have caused an obstruction.
On the basis of the 400m races (individual and relay) here, it could be said that MR Poovamma, VR Vismaya and Saritaben Gayakwad, as well as Arokia Rajiv, are in good form, revealing consistency while Muhammed Anas Yahiya did well to show that he has recovered from the after-effects of an injury suffered in training in Turkey.
It remains to be seen how soon Hima Das recovers from her back issues and can be reunited with the relay team. It is clear that the Assam teenager will need to be in peak fitness both in the IAAF World Relay Championships in Yokohama on 11 and 12 May and the IAAF World Championships in September-October in Doha.
With hurdler Dharun Ayyasamy most likely to remain unavailable until later in the year, the men will have to field someone who can run faster than the 48.1 Kunhu Muhammed managed in the opening lap on Wednesday. Perhaps, MP Jabir who the 400m Hurdles bronze in 49.13 seconds, could be that man.
At the moment, however, it can be said that the Athletics Federation of India's dream of the relay teams making a mark in the Olympic Games in Tokyo next year is some distance away as each of the squads has yet to give the impression that they are ready to secure automatic berth to the Olympic Games that will be available at the World Championships.