India’s dominance in kabaddi came to a screeching halt at the 2018 Asian Games as the country lost to Iran in the semifinals. The Indians were the overwhelming favourites and went into the Games having won every gold medal since the sport was introduced in 1990. But the 18-27 result was more than just a rude jolt. It made one point clear: other nations have caught up, endangering India’s monopoly in kabaddi.
India captain Ajay Thakur was contrite while admitting the level of competition has improved. “Zameen asmaan ka farak hai ,” he said. “It’s not like earlier where we could just go and win the title. I had never imagined that we would lose in such a manner. We had just beaten them (Iran) in the Kabaddi Masters in Dubai in June.. We had a lot of pressure on us going in as the defending champions and the loss certainly stings.”
Thakur also made an important point, that India’s domestic kabaddi fixtures are an opportunity for foreign players to learn. “The foreign players come to play in India for three-four months in a year and observe how we play. They have benefited and the sport has grown and now we have to step up our game,” he said.
J. Udayakumar, who coached India at the 2002, 2006 and 2014 Asian Games, said the team wasn’t adequately prepared. “We did not prepare according to our opponent’s strengths and weaknesses. That was the main issue. The Iranian team is a defensive unit and they don’t have a proper raider. The Koreans have a similar team, except for their star raider Jang Kun Lee. We needed to study out opponents better and analyse their game properly. We needed to work on match situations and prepare accordingly. Our overall preparation and game plan was lacking,” he said.
Udayakumar also rued the frequent substitution of raiders. “The defence was good, we didn’t concede too many points, but our key raiders failed to score points. The best raiders were frequently substituted and spent most of the time on the bench. They weren’t given a chance to settle down and get into a rhythm. Pardeep Narwal is a regular raider and even he was substituted. If they had been given more time on the mat, they could’ve rectified their errors and tried to stage more successful raids. The repeated and frequent substitutions really hampered their performance,” he added.
But why couldn’t the likes of Narwal or Monu Goyat — who scored 369 and 202 points, respectively, in the fifth edition of the Pro Kabaddi League — replicate their performance in Jakarta? “There is no concrete defence in the PKL. The players are all in temporary positions. The Indian players are spread among 12 teams and there is no concrete defence in any team. This is the difference and this is why the likes of Pardeep could not score as many points,” Udayakumar said.
India’s loss in the Asian Games semifinals made more than headlines. It ignited debate and criticism, something the sport has been rarely exposed to in India.
E. Bhaskaran, who coached the men’s team in 2010 and the women’s squad in 2014, said the warning signs were unmistakable. “India had defeated Iran by two points at the 2014 Asian Games. We should have predicted this then and seen the danger coming,” he said, adding that the 2018 team lacked stability in the defence.
“The team selection and management was an issue. Monu is India’s top raider and he was often seen on the bench. Rohit Kumar’s injury cropped up and some key defenders were left behind. The team composition was poor. A team needs four defenders, two for each corner and two holding defenders. Only then will the team have stability,” Bhaskaran said.
Two-time Asian Games gold medallist and former India captain Manpreet Singh also said the lack of strategy was an issue. “Perhaps our strategy and planning weren’t up to the mark. We didn’t analyse the opposition well enough and make plans accordingly. Until that happens, we will not win even if we have the best team,” he said. But he was quick to add that the team will remain on top despite the loss.
“If kabaddi has to go ahead, then other countries have to improve and that’s the only way the sport will be added in the Olympics. Just because we’ve lost one Asian Games doesn’t mean our team is bad. There is no need to panic. We have some fantastic players. Our base is solid and we have great bench strength. All big teams lose across sports,” Singh said.
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