An unbeaten run, raiders finding form and consistency, crucial wins over arch rival Iran (twice) and all this in their first international appearance in five years - the Asian Kabaddi Championships had positives aplenty for team India.
Six teams formed the competitive pool of the tournament in Busan, South Korea - India, Iran, Chinese Taipei, Japan and host Korea, with the competition also providing valuable time on the mat for the sides ahead of the Asian Games in China later this year.
Handling India’s victorious campaign off the mat was a distinguished coaching contingent comprising of Ashan Kumar, the man who led Tamil Thalaivas in a fairytale campaign in the ninth season of Pro Kabaddi League (PKL), Sanjeev Kumar Baliyan, the title-winning coach with Jaipur Pink Panthers in PKL 9 and Edachery Bhaskaran, who led India to gold in the 2010 Asian Games in Guangzhou.
Boost to Asiad prep
“We got the opportunity to play in an international tournament after so many years, and I am happy that we made it count,” Ashan to Sportstar from Korea.
“Before the event, coach Bhaskaran and I along with my kids worked hard and prepared well in the camp in Bengaluru. After the loss in the 2018 Asian Games and missing out on the opportunity to raise our flag in Jakarta, winning this tournament meant a lot, and these kids ensured that this dream was fulfilled by winning every game convincingly and by large margins,” he said.
India enjoyed a dominant run and operated on a far superior level compared to the other participating nations, scoring the highest points (330) while leaking the least (129) in the four-day continental championship. The only opponent who made India break a sweat was long-time nemesis Iran.
India won by an average of more than 46 points against other teams, but in both matches against Iran, it was given a tough time. Iran narrowly missed out by five points in the league match, and despite losing the final by 10 points, was constantly snapping at India’s heels looking to level scores.
“Iran defeated India by 14 points in the last Asian Games. We covered those 14 deficit points and beat them with a margin of 10 points in the final. No doubt Iran will be the team to beat in the Asian Games. We are seeing them as a big competitor and not taking them lightly,” he added.
‘Entire focus was on our boys’
The 63-year-old has travelled the world as a kabaddi coach and even successfully helmed campaigns in Iran (2010) and Korea (2018) where the sides have beaten India at the Asiad level.
“We have enough time before the Asian Games, so all of our preparations will be based on the strength of our opposition and their skill set, and I am very confident that no one can touch us in that competition,” he added.
While India and Iran kept up the pedigree in kabaddi the countries have built a reputation for, Korea, silver medallist in the last Asiad in Jakarta, looked a pale shadow of its former self.
“Iran was always a good team and still is. Teams like Chinese Taipei impressed me a lot. Yes, Korea had some definitive weaknesses. However, I went there as India’s coach this time, so my entire focus was on our boys, and I am extremely pleased with our team’s performance,” Ashan remarked when prodded about the skill level of the others teams in the tournament.
Wary of niggles
The tournament also marked the successful return of star-raider Pawan Sehrawat, who missed out on the entire PKL 9 season after picking up a ACL injury in the season opener. With two super 10s to his name and crucial contributions in defense, the 26-year-old led from the front.
“Pawan is a world-class player. He returned to the mat only after fully recovering from his injury two-three months ago. He has performed admirably throughout the tournament. As captain, he led and controlled the team from the front, and has been very instrumental in India’s winning run,” Ashan remarked.
On the other hand, Naveen Kumar sustained a niggle against Chinese Taipei and warmed the bench thereafter.
“Naveen twisted his ankle in one of the practice sessions before the tournament, but it’s nothing serious. We are saving him for the Asian Games. We do not want anyone to risk even small niggles. Our bench strength was so good that we decided young boys should take charge,” Ashan explained.
Systems in place ahead of Hangzhou
Ashan confirmed the three-member coaching unit will remain the same for the Asiad and also said that 24 selected players will head to a national camp at Netaji Subhas National Institute of Sports (NSNIS) Bengaluru from July 5.
The exclusion of seasoned players Pardeep Narwal, Deepak Niwas Hooda, Surender Gill, Surender Nada, and Girish Maruti Ernak had raised eyebrows ahead of the Asian Championship, but Ashan said that they will return to selection consideration for the Asian Games.
“The one who will show commitment towards the nation, be it senior or junior, experienced or inexperienced, we will take those players in the team purely based on merit and team balance.”
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