"Mein jab bhi 2014 Asian Games ki final ko yaad karta hu, meri saase phool jaati hai. Bohot mushkil se jaan bachi thi waha humari (Whenever I think of the 2014 Asian Games final, my heart starts pounding. We prevailed by the skin of our teeth in that game)," Ajay Thakur, the current captain of the Indian kabaddi team, and the only survivor in the current squad from that thrilling triumph over Iran four years ago, manages to afford a smile as he recollects the tense moments en route to India's seventh straight gold medal in kabaddi at Incheon.
India, the pioneers and world beaters in kabaddi were down on their knees. Trailing Iran by 8 points at the interval, the inconceivable possibility of India missing out on an Asian Games gold medal in kabaddi was ever closer to being a reality. India's monopoly in kabaddi was under a serious threat until a Rakesh Kumar-inspired fightback helped them to a two-point win in the dying minutes of the game. India had their gold medal, but the foundation of their dominance in the sport was shaken.
Two years later, India once again trailed Iran at half time in a major final. This time it was the World Cup. The Iranians, stronger than before, hungrier than before, had set their sights on an illusive upset, but India found another timely hero, this time in form of Thakur. The Indians kept their global supremacy intact, but gap was shrinking.
Fast forward to 2018, a day before the kabaddi giants embark on another gold quest on the continental front, India seemed to have learnt their lesson. Arriving in Jakarta with a squad of highly talented youngsters bullishly confident in their abilities after their success in the Pro Kabaddi League, India have regained the aura that appeared to be diminishing in the past few years. Dominant wins in the 2018 Dubai Kabaddi Masters in June and 2017 Asian Kabaddi Championships, have left the opponents licking their wounds.
Members of the Indian men's kabaddi team pose for a photograph before leaving for Jakarta. Image Courtesy: AKFI
"We used to come under a great deal of pressure while playing the likes of Iran, South Korea and Pakistan who are keen on making our life difficult. But this time we have been preparing since last November. We have had three camps and our focus has been on playing aggressive kabaddi," Rambir Singh Khokhar, the chief coach of Indian men's team told Firstpost.
India under former captain Anup Kumar played a slightly reserved style of kabaddi. The team relied on the superior quality of its defence to flatten opposition raiders, as the Indians raided with a degree of caution. This approach invited pressure on the Indians when the defence failed to fire. Under new coaching setup led by Khokhar, India are a lot more aggressive. The team is packed with a battery of top raiders who are all different in their raiding styles. They have a license to attack from the word go in every single raid. So far the ploy has worked. Teams have struggled to deal with the variety of India's three-pronged attack that has been instructed to be relentless. India's opponents rely heavily on their defence. In fact, their game plans are built around having a unforgiving defence. Their raiding departments aren't the strongest. So when their defence fails to control Indian raiders, they are left with little cover.
"Our raiders have outstanding abilities. I think the current crop of raiders is the best we have ever sent for any Asian Games. We want to make the most of that and not give our opponents a chance," Khokhar added.
The current Indian squad for the Asian Games has just three pure defenders. The rest of the team comprises of raiders and all-rounders. So out of the 12 players, 9 can raid effectively. The logic behind the selection is to always have players capable of scoring points in the raid on the mat.
"The aim is to never get all out. In fact, the plan is to always have more than three players on the mat. By playing all-rounders even if we lose our main raiders, we will have players to revive them and keep the opponents on the toes," Khokhar revealed.
Thus all-rounders like Deepak Niwas Hooda and Sandeep Narwal have been handed defensive roles and will line-up in the two cover positions. India are likely to come out on the mat with just two pure defenders: Mohit Chhillar at right corner and Girish Ernak at left corner.
Captain Thakur will spearhead the raiding department. Rishank Devadiga is likely to join him in the line-up with his proficiency in the do-or-die raids giving him the edge over the others. The other raiding spot is a toss up between Rohit Kumar and Monu Goyat, with the nature of the opponent and requirement of the match situation likely to drive the selection. Pardeep Narwal and Rahul Chaudhari, the highest scoring raiders in the PKL offer great alternatives from the bench.
India won the Kabaddi Masters and Asian Championship without suffering an all out. The ploy of the new management has yielded results. Now the onus will be on the players to deal with the pressure of the occasion and make their technical superiority count.
The pressure like always will be on India, but Khokhar has faith in this new generation of kabaddi superstars to do the job in Jakarta. "Obviously there will always be pressure on us. We have never lost a game at the Asian Games. Since 1990, we have always won the gold medal, so naturally the expectation will be the same. But we have prepared for this and I am confident that we will return with the gold," Khokhar asserted.
India are placed in Group A with South Korea, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Bangladesh.
Iran, as they have done in the previous two editions will pose the biggest threat to India. Under new coach Gholamreza Mazandarani, who is set to take charge of PKL franchise U Mumba in the upcoming season, Iran are expected to present a fresh face. Their defence will remain their strength, but presence of a few youngsters is expected to boost their resolve. Former captain Meraj Sheykh has been dropped, but Fazel Atrachali and Abozar Mohajermighani have been included after the trio were not selected for the Kabaddi Masters. Mazandarani wasn't pleased with the physical state in which these players returned from the PKL, and decided to do without them in Dubai. While Fazel and Abozar managed to regain the coach's faith, Meraj seemed to have failed to do so.
South Korea who won bronze in 2014 will look to improve on that performance at home. Possible relief from mandatory military service might drive them in Jakarta, but only a gold will earn them that privilege. A possible semi-final against Iran awaits them if they manage to avoid any upset in the group phase. Pakistan too have a young bunch of players and are expected to be medal contenders. Like India, Pakistan too have won a medal in kabaddi in every edition so far and would love to continue that trend. Reaching the final will be a tough ask as they are expected to run into India at the semi-final stage if they fail to get better of Iran in the group phase.
Ajay Thakur and Co need to just keep their heads and their superior individual quality should see them pick up an eighth straight gold medal in men's kabaddi at the Asiad. Iran, Korea and Pakistan will have other ideas, but kabaddi's current pecking order is such that the gold medal aspirants' best chance lies in India's inability to keep a focused mind.
Indian women eye hat-trick
Unlike the men's game, Indian women have hardly had to break a sweat to claim gold medals at the 2010 and 2014 Asian Games. A 30-21 victory over Iran in the previous edition was achieved with a fair degree of comfort. In the 2017 Asian Kabaddi Championship in Iran, the women's team crushed South Korea 42-20 in the final to romp to victory in a competition they dominated from start to finish.
However, even the women's side have seen a change at the helm of affairs. Former captain Abhilasha Mhatre hasn't found a place in the squad, and Indian Railways' Payel Chowdhury will lead the side in Jakarta.
There are six new faces in the Asian Games squad, and like the men, the women too have decided to bank on a few young players that performed well in the senior national championships last year. The women's team also has a large number of all-rounders that would allow them to be flexible in their selection. There was no competition for the women's game at Kabaddi Masters Dubai, but the women have had four camps before to get ready for the Asian Games. Three took place at SAI Gandhinagar, while the final one was at Sonipat where coach Srinivas Reddy joined the team.
"In the first two camps we focused on fitness and conditioning. In the third camp we worked a lot on tactical aspects, while the fourth camp was all about building co-ordination among the players. We have prepared extremely well for this event and I expect a top level of performance from the girls," Banani Saha, the coach of the women's team who conducted the initial three camps before assisting in the final one told Firstpost.
Captain Chowdhury is the chief raider of the team. Sonali Shingate (Indian Railways) and Randeep Kaur (Punjab) will complete India's attack. At the corners Sakshi Kumari (Haryana) and Ritu Negi (Indian Railways) will continue their combination, while Kavita Devi of Himachal Pradesh and Manpreet from Rajasthan will take charge of the cover roles.
India are placed in Group A with Japan, Thailand, Sri Lanka and hosts Indonesia.
In the women's kabaddi, India don't have a single clear challenger, but a threat to their crown could come from Asian Championship finalists South Korea, Iran and Sri Lanka.
Like the men, the women will have the pressure to deliver. However, coach Saha feels her team is ready for the mental battle in Jakarta. "Yes, there will be pressure on us. We are going for the hattrick. All teams I feel are competitive, but we are the best. We must respect every opponent and just focus on ourselves. If we do that, I don't think we can be stopped," the former West Bengal player said.
The group phase of the kabaddi event begins early on 19 August and will continue till 22 August. The semifinals will take place on 23 August with the final scheduled for the following day.
Once again, the twin kabaddi golds are India's to lose, with recklessness and complacency being their biggest rivals.