Ask die-hard Indian kabaddi fans about the events of August 23, 2018, and you will see collective amnesia. India, a gold medallist at the Asian Games since the sport’s induction in the roster, fell to a stunning 18-27 loss to arch-rival Iran in the semifinal in Jakarta.
The players were shell-shocked; the Indian fans, whose boisterous cheers reverberated through the Garuda Hall in the Indonesian capital until about the 30-minute mark, had tears in their eyes.
Ajay Thakur, the Indian skipper, had a cut on his right eyebrow from a tackle earlier in the game. Once the final whistle blew, one could see him on the bench, with his teammates and coaches convincing him to come away, but he just sat there, almost numb, with the blood stains on his shirt drying up as the minutes passed. In the days to come, this squad, no matter the legacy, would be torn apart. After seven consecutive golds, the honours board and the podium top step were cleared for Iran.
The Asian Games is here once more, and Indian Kabaddi is waiting for revenge. An itch that has shaped the skills and sensibility of a whole new generation of players. But is Iran still the same bogeyman whose nightmares have kept players up at night these past five years?
Playing catch up
The image of that Indian squad standing disappointed on the dais with the bronze medal reinforced the nation’s faith and reliance on its basics. India’s domestic kabaddi structure is second to none. Public sector undertakings, arms of the military and states make up a reasonably busy calendar at age group and senior levels.
What sets India apart is also a flourishing domestic franchise framework- the ProKabaddi League (PKL), which is heading into its 10th edition this year. PKL has been an attractive financial and competitive option for some of the best kabaddi players from other countries, including the Iranians.
So much so, blame was also pinned on the league after India’s defeat in the 2018 Asian Games for opening up the Indian set-up to its arch rivals and blunting the dagger. But the Indian hand in Iran’s rise in kabaddi goes beyond PKL.
“Our success in the Asian Games and that gold medal is all thanks to the PKL because the tournament gave us more exposure and experience. Ashan Kumar [India’s current head coach] was our coach before [helped Iran win silver in the 2010 Guangzhou Games] and he helped us believe that we could do well in major competitions. We have played with the best talent from Iran and India. It matters,” Iran defender Abozar Mohajermighani, one of the architects of India’s fall in Jakarta, tells Sportstar.
Unlike India, Iran does not have the system (yet at least) to back the kind of talent that is challenging hegemonies at the world level.
“A lot of kabaddi teams in Iran come from Gorgan and these clubs play friendly matches between themselves. But outside that, not much happens. Iran has only one league, and this goes on for just two to three months. After that, if any tournament happens for the national team, there’s a camp. Otherwise, we end up waiting for the next league. Iran players always do something else — be it football, bodybuilding,etc” Abozar explains.
Bridging the gap
“In kabaddi, fitness is most important because you have contact all the time. If you’re not fit, after one attack, you’ll get injured. Frankly, I know that India’s skills are far superior to Iran’s. So fitness is one way for us to even the scales at a level like this,” says Iran head coach Gholamreza Mazandarani.
Gholamreza is a tough taskmaster but an innovative one. His drills for the boys this time around have involved uphill treks and swims in the Caspian Sea alongside creative games during endurance and resistance training. Travelling to different terrains also means bonfires and barbecues where the squad comes together to cook meals,dine and clean up. The idea is to allow the players to find a rhythm off the mat too.
“Our practice is a little different from what India does. I think the Indian coaching gig is a lot easier than our job here in Iran. In India, I am sure players only need some strategy and tactical advice. But for the rest of us, we need to work on everything - fitness, skills and temperament. Every day, a large chunk of our time goes into analysis, looking at the players’ strengths and weaknesses, where they might fall short against their opponents and how they can improve,” Gholamreza explains.
Iran had an opportunity to give its talent pool a dress rehearsal of the demands of the Asian Games in the Asian Kabaddi Championships in Busan in June.
Gholamreza took a young squad without seniors like Fazel Atrachali and Mohammad Esmaeil Nabibakhsh, much like what the side did in the Dubai Kabaddi Masters before the 2018 Asian Games. When Fazel was missing even from visuals coming from the camp, doubts emerged about whether Iran was looking past the tactical genius of the 31-year-old.
“I don’t focus on the name. Name, experience, legacy doesn’t matter. I only look at the present and what they are capable of doing now. For me, only the number on their backs matter. Some coaches tend to back bigger names. I don’t think like that. For me, age or other factors don’t matter, talent does,” Gholamreza said about the squad he has picked. Fazel and Nabibakhsh are the only ones from the 2018 edition who will take to the mat in China.
While names don’t matter for the Iranian gaffer, one jersey every Indian faithful will eye with bated breath is that of Mohammadreza Shadloui Chiyaneh.
The 23-year-old almost single-handedly took the game away from the Indians in the Asian Championship final before a silly error of stopping to chant ‘kabaddi kabaddi’ to make an aggressive advance towards the Indian defence cost him and Iran their advantage.
Gholamreza used Shadloui sparingly in the tournament, but what stood out was the man from Orumiyeh in the West Azerbaijan Province, doubling up as a raider in crunch situations.
A year ago, this would have been a puzzling call but a Patna Pirates vs Dabang Delhi game where Shadloui scored a whopping 19 points (over 70 percent of the team’s final score - 27) put any doubts that remained to rest.
The specialist versus all-rounder debate then took centre stage. Former Pirates coach Ravi Shetty was often seen asking Shadloui, who would constantly nag him for raiding opportunities while on the mat, to pipe down and focus on his lethality in the left corner. As a young teenager, Shadloui faced dismissal of a similar kind from Gholamreza many years ago.
“When he came into the Iran camp for the first time, Shadloui was a raider and he was just 16 or 17 years old. I said there would be no chances for him to raid as he was too young and too tall. Injury risks were therefore high. So we focussed on defence and decided to save raiding for a later date. We considered him for the last Asian Games too but a passport issue meant we couldn’t take him along. He then got a platform in the PKL where he was primarily a defender. But his mind, mentality and skill are all tuned to the demands of a raider too,” the coach says.
Iran’s wrestling pedigree takes credit for the country’s unmatched defensive capabilities in kabaddi. Fazel, Abozar, Nabibakhsh and many others all have roots in Koshti. Abozar, a happy-go-lucky person off the mat, was a dancing, taunting menace during that semifinal in Jakarta, drawing confidence from his combined super tackles with Fazel in the other corner.
Indian defenders, while equally physically gifted, largely lack the brute force to keep raiders down with such resolve. But with nations like India racing away in the raiding department, Iran can’t afford to leave all the heavy lifting to its defenders.
“As a coach, my intention is always to improve both departments,” Gholamreza chimes in. “The issue is, our competitive structure isn’t as robust as India’s. There’s only so much you can do in practice. Players improve when they play matches, when they are under pressure. Maybe if we can start a league like PKL, many more good players will start emerging from Iran too,” he adds.
Lending rivals a hand
While India beat Iran to win gold in Busan, the matches were too close for comfort. Those gaps hurt the Iranians more than Indians as they believe the margins boil down to India having more match experience.
“The national team needs more tournaments. In 15 years, we should have won 15 medals. That’s something that needs to be made available for the players. It naturally makes them better on the mat,” Abozar underlines.
“See the gap between international competitions in kabaddi…after eight years there’s one Asian Championship. After 10 years, one World Cup comes along. India doesn’t know the pain because competitions are there, but other countries struggle a lot. I think we should have fixed windows for the Asian Championships, World Cups and other potential international events,” Gholamreza says.
The Iranian once pitched a radical idea to E. Prasad Rao, PKL’s technical director, a few franchise owners and Deoraj Chaturvedi, former president of the International Kabaddi Federation, to improve the health of world kabaddi.
“I told them that we should make an Asian League. Give stronger countries more representation but allow countries to get involved. Get clubs to come in. This will help popularise the sport and bolster our efforts to get it recognised for the Olympics,” he explains.
The immediate goal, though, is to retain the Asian bragging rights. It takes something special to bring down a 28-year-old chokehold over a sport, but the task of defending that crown will require the Iranians to play out of their skins.
“I think it’s hard for both teams - there’s pressure on Iran to repeat its feat and there’s pressure on India to reclaim the title. There’s no room for mistakes,” Gholamreza says.
Iran men’s kabaddi at the Asian Games
Kabaddi at the Hangzhou Asian Games will be held from October 2 to 7 at the Xiaoshan Guali Sports Centre
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