108 qualification spots in 18 categories are up for grabs as India’s wrestlers start their campaign on Saturday at the Wrestling World Championships at the Barys Arena in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan.
Add the non-Olympic categories and there’s a 30-strong contingent that’s been led by medal favourite Bajrang Punia in what is the first of the qualifying events for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
While Bajrang will be looking to improve his silver from last year, there’s also Sushil Kumar who’s trying to make his way to a farewell Olympics along with Vinesh Phogat, who’s enjoyed a top-notch summer with numerous gold medal wins. Apart from the big names, India has also sent some first-timers the most promising of which is the 2019 junior World Champion Deepak Punia who’s seeded fourth in his category.
Bajrang has been handed the top seeding in the men's 65kg freestyle category and has been in Russia training for the big event. The 25-year old bagged a bronze in 2013 in the 60kg category but has moved up to the 65 kg category in which he won a silver last year.
The run-up to the Worlds has been spectacular for him as he won at all four events he competed this season -- Dan Kolov, Asian Championship Ali Aliev and Yasar Dogu. His road to a gold now though is full of challenges with the presence of Russian Gadzhimurad Rashidov and Bahrain's Haji Mohammed Ali in his category.
Struggling star Sushil Kumar sealed a berth in India's squad for the World Championship by beating Jitender Kumar 4-2 in a bitterly-fought 74kg final of the selection trials that were also marred by controversy. Jitender’s camp alleged that Sushil injured his eye on purpose but the two-time Olympic medallist has shrugged off the claims and is aiming to win his second Worlds medal after the gold in 2010.
In fact, Sushil is returning to the tournament after a gap of 8 years.
He will be watched keenly in the 74kg competition as his relevance is being discussed for some time now. He remains bullish about his chances and Worlds will provide an opportunity to test his claims.
Maharashtra wrestler Rahul Aware has been handed the second seed in the non Olympic 61kg while reigning junior World Champion Deepak Punia has been seeded fourth in the 86kg event.
"My training has gone really well and I am excited to make my World Championships debut. Winning a gold at the World Junior Championships last month has boosted my confidence level and I am eager to give my all," said Deepak, who ended India's 18-year-old medal drought at the Junior World Championships.
He outplayed his seniors during the trials and this would be the perfect opportunity for him to announce his arrival on the senior circuit.
Deepak, in fact, is the only Indian to win a junior world title after Ramesh Gulia (69kg) and Palwinder Singh Cheema (130 kg) stood atop the podium at the 2001 World Championships in Tashkent. The first Indian to achieve the feat was Pappu Yadav, who triumphed way back in 1992 at Cali, Colombia.
In a stellar 2018 in which she won gold medals at both the Commonwealth and Asian Games, Vinesh Phogat missed out on the World Championships later in the year due to injury. However, riding on yet another in-form summer, Vinesh is India’s medal favourite among women at the World Championships.
Her season however began with a change in weight categories as she moved up to 53kg from 50kg. She took some time to settle in her new class but still made five finals, winning three golds – Yasar Dogu, Grand Prix of Spain and Poland Open.
While skill is not an issue with Vinesh, holding off strong candidates for six minutes is a big challenge, she herself had admitted recently.
The big-stage competition will help her make an assessment on this count as she eyes a maiden Worlds medal.
No Indian woman has ever won a gold at the Worlds and Vinesh has it in her to end India's drought.
Among women, India's Seema Bisla has been seeded second in the 50kg and is in fact the only Indian woman to be seeded at the tournament.
She won a gold medal at Yasar Dogu Ranking Series earlier this summer that helped propel her to the number three spot in the world.
Olympic medallist Sakshi Malik has been struggling on the international circuit and hasn't won a title since her triumph at the 2017 Commonwealth Championships. This season, ending runner-up at Dan Kolov has been her best show. She had stunned reigning world champion Petra Olli before eventually settling for a silver.
Not being able to handle pressure has been her bane for long. Staying defensive in the final moments of the bout has not helped her and she has lost a few bouts from advantageous position lot of time.
Divya Kakran, in contrast, is a bundle of energy and remains relentless throughout her bouts. She has won two gold and as many bronze medals this season and looks hungry for more.
Pooja Dhanda, who became only the fourth Indian woman to win a medal at the Worlds last year, could not book a berth in 57kg, which is an Olympic category but will fight for her second medal in 59kg.
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