Asian Wrestling Championships: India still not ready for Tokyo 2020

North Korea gave it a miss and China was denied visas to participate, barring in a few divisions, due to the Coronavirus crisis; Iran did not send their best.

Ravi Dahiya, the Worlds bronze medallist, furthered his reputation with a gold medal in the 57kg class in the Asian Wrestling championships in New Delhi.   -  PTI

 

The 2020 Asian Wrestling Championships in New Delhi a fortnight ago was, for all purposes, the last chance for fans to see home favourites in action before they step out on the mat in Tokyo. Carrying the burden of an entire nation isn’t easy, however, and the final tally — a record haul of 20 medals across genders and formats — might sound impressive but left a lot more questions for the big guns.

India, so far, has four qualified wrestlers for the quadrennial event. Of those, only Ravi Dahiya in the 57kg freestyle category lived up to the ‘favourite’ billing. Bajrang Punia — the biggest of them all and the defending champion — settled for a silver, while Vinesh Phogat among the women (53kg) and Deepak Punia (86kg) could only muster bronze medals. It might mean little in an Olympic year and yet a lot, four months before the big event.

If that sounds contradictory, it has to do with the manner of losses and the opponents against whom they came for the big guns. What would make the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) concerned would be the fact that, regardless of the medal tally, the competition was not a real reflection of the quality of Asian wrestling. North Korea gave it a miss because of the Coronavirus crisis, China was denied visa to participate for the same reason and, barring in a few divisions, Japan and Iran did not send their best wrestlers.

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Bajrang, in particular, would be keen to step away from the spotlight and get back to training after coming up short against Takuto Otoguro in the final. The Japanese, who had beaten Bajrang in the World Championships final two years back, proved ready for the changes the Indian himself had made to his techniques for an overwhelming 10-2 win.

Bajrang clearly has worked on his most evident weakness in leg defence but that was offset by his lack of movement and usual agility on the mat. Otoguro, coming back from an ordinary 2019, was at his best, slipping past Bajrang’s attacks and counter-punching with ease. Coach Shako Bentinidis insisted it was unfair to expect Bajrang to win every time he competed. Which would be perfectly true, but it isn’t the defeat that should worry the World No. 2 and India’s best and undoubtedly biggest wrestling star at the moment but the manner of it.

In Greco-Roman, Sunil Kumar ended India’s 27-year wait for gold, winning the 87kg category.   -  Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

 

While Bajrang has been training in Europe since the start of the season and is nowhere near his peak — something he would ideally expect to do in another four months — one hopes the loss would not sow doubts in his mind. None of that for Ravi Dahiya, though, as the Worlds bronze medallist furthered his reputation with a gold in the 57kg class.

One of the few Indians to actually practice the golden rule of ‘keep moving’ on the mat, Ravi has swiftness and the technique to both create attacking openings and block defensive angles. Tiring out his opponents and scoring points through his impressive takedowns, Ravi beat Hikmatullo Vohidov of Tajikistan 10-0 in the final and may well end up being the surprise package in Tokyo.

World silver medallist Deepak Punia appeared lethargic en route to his bronze in the 86kg and Jitender Kumar (74kg) won more a battle of attrition and passivity than any effective display of his own.

Asian jinx continues for Vinesh

For Vinesh, the continental jinx continued. For someone who has had success at every level including the Worlds (bronze in 2019) and is one of the strongest Indian hopes for a medal at the Tokyo Olympics, the inability to break past her nemesis Mayu Mukaida of Japan would be a concern.

The twice-world champion Mukaida, one of the few big names in the competition across formats, registered her third straight win (6-2) against Vinesh, who was also unlucky to draw up Mukaida in the very first round. It also proves why the draw would again play an important role in India’s medal hopes, come Tokyo.

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Mukaida’s superiority was evident in her water-tight defence and nippy attacks from different angles to what she had done in their earlier face-offs. Vinesh tried a leg-hold multiple times and insisted her slow start was strategic but to be honest, she was never in the fight. On the flip side, this was the first time Vinesh managed to take off points against the Japanese. Small consolation, perhaps, but the Indian would gladly take any positives at this time.

Sakshi Malik lost to Japan’s Naomi Ruke twice in a day — the opening bout and then the final — and appeared slow and unable to counter the quick and powerful Japanese.   -  Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

 

Youngsters step up

If the big guns failed to blaze as expected, the youngsters stepped up to be counted. Gourav Baliyan, at 18, impressed with his confidence on the mat. Losing a close final 5-7 to Kyrgyzstan’s Arsalan Budazhapov in his maiden outing Baliyan, who lost to Jitender in the national trials, made his intentions clear for future. He was also one of the few who actually put up a decent fight in the title clash on a day when the rest seemed to be content with simply reaching the final.

Rahul Aware paid the price for a brief loss of concentration — he admitted later that it was the first time in his career — and a misjudged challenge to settle for bronze against Iran’s Majid Almas Dastan but clearly had the moves to target bigger stages. However, having won in the 61kg non-Olympic category, Aware knew he had to wait — the categories immediately above and below him are already sealed.

In Greco-Roman, Sunil Kumar bettered himself and the country’s record, ending a 27-year wait for gold, winning the 87kg. Four bronze medals followed through 21-year old Arjun Halakurki (55kg), 19-year old Ashu (67kg), Aditya Kundu (72kg), and Hardeep (97kg) for India’s best-ever performance in the category. That most of them were participating in their maiden senior competition without any show of nerves was commendable.

Among the women, Sonam Malik proved her victory over Olympic bronze medallist Sakshi Malik in the trials was no fluke, impressing despite not winning a medal. It wasn’t easy for the 18-year old, who drew up against reigning World Champion Aisuluu Tynybekova in the bronze play-off, but she proved herself the best in the 62kg, pinning Sakshi in the trials for the Olympic Qualifiers yet again a week later. Anshu (57kg), also making her senior debut, won bronze to make the comeback even more difficult for Pooja Dhanda.

Divya Kakran dominated all her bouts to a gold but four years since her bronze in Rio, time is running out fast for Sakshi. A single gold in the interim and a silver competing in the non-Olympic 65kg makes her future uncertain.

Sakshi lost to Japan’s Naomi Ruke twice in a day — the opening bout and then the final — and appeared slow and unable to counter the quick and powerful Japanese. Even in the previous bouts, she barely managed to hang on against more attacking opponents.

It is another matter that in most of the draws, there were fewer than seven entries to put the quality of competition in perspective. With the dust settling on the event itself and the future unclear — the Asian Qualifier, already shifted from China’s Xi’an to Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan, has now been further postponed with no final dates — Indian wrestlers are racing against time to not just qualify but also work on their game. Sooner the better.