India's best bet

Gagan Narang… needs to focus on shooting big scores rather than worrying about medals.-RAJEEV BHATT

After its remarkable showing in the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi recently, India is expected to keep up the good work in the Asian Games too. Here's the list of athletes who will keep India's flag flying at the Games.

As in the Commonwealth Games, India's fortunes in Guangzhou will depend heavily on its performances in disciplines such as shooting, boxing, tennis, badminton, wrestling and archery.

Here's is Sportstar's pick of athletes who are expected to do India proud at the Games.

Gagan Narang (shooting)

It will be the biggest challenge for rifle ace Gagan Narang to live up to his reputation at the Games. He has won eight gold medals in two editions of the Commonwealth Games, but is gunning for his first gold medal in the Asian Games. He has beaten the best of shooters in the World Cups and World Cup Finals, with world records to boot, but, apart from the World Championship bronze, the 27-year-old marksman has precious little to show on the big stage.

He was unlucky to miss out on the air rifle finals at the Beijing Olympics. In the last Asian Games in Doha, he had won the bronze in the rifle 3-position event.

If Narang keeps it simple and focuses on shooting those big scores rather than worry about medals, he could be the toast of the nation once again.

Vijender Singh (boxing — 75kg)

World and Olympic medallist Vijender Singh will try to forget his below-par showing at the Commonwealth Games, where he managed only a bronze medal, and bank on his wealth of experience to put up a much improved performance in Guangzhou.

Competition has always been tough at the Asian level. Four years ago, in the Doha Asian Games, Vijender had won one of the two bronze medals India had managed in boxing. However, his confidence of tasting success at the highest level will count in his favour.

Boxers from former Soviet countries, China and Korea will be the main contenders in Vijender's weight category. The ace pugilist is aware of the challenge and is ready to face it. “I know the competition will be more difficult than what it was in the Commonwealth Games. My preparation is in full swing,” he said.

Potential medallists... Sania Nehwal (above), Mary Kom (below), Om Prakash Singh (bottom).-R. RAGU

M. C. Mary Kom (women's boxing — 51kg)

Five-time World champion Mary Kom has always banked on her will power to carry herself past several obstacles in her decade-long international career. She will have to do it again as she leads the Indian women's challenge in Guangzhou where women's boxing makes its debut in the Asian Games.

The pint-sized boxer, dubbed ‘Magnificent Mary', won her latest World title in the 46kg weight category in September 2010. She will face an uphill task in the Asian Games since she has been selected in the 51kg weight class as categories have been adjusted to include only three weights in women's boxing.

However, the fact that Mary Kom has come through the selection trials by beating World championship medallist Sarita Devi speaks of her ability to adjust to the new weight quickly. Her biggest strength inside the ring has been her aggression, which has brought her many laurels at the Asian and World levels. She is expected to make history once again by adding another title to her collection.

RITU RAJ KONWAR

Saina Nehwal (badminton)

After providing the finishing touches to India's finest ever campaign in the Commonwealth Games with a memorable triumph, Saina Nehwal ventures into far more challenging territories in the Asian Games.

Collaring the Chinese in their own den will be very difficult for Saina. Ranked No. 3 in the world, the second-seeded Saina will face a serious threat only in the semifinal where she is expected to play third-seeded Shixian Wang (China).

It must be remembered that Shixian Wang ousted Saina with surprising ease in the World Championship quarterfinals in Paris in August. So, Saina will be keen to avenge the loss.

Going by the form and seeding of Saina, a first ever individual medal in the Asian Games by an Indian woman looks possible. But for that to happen, Saina will have to see off either Shixian Wang or the fourth-seeded Eriko Hirose (Japan) in the key matches leading to the medal rounds.

Om Prakash Singh (athletics)

He is the Asian champion, but form deserted him at the most crucial moment in the Commonwealth Games where he had to settle for the fifth place with 19.51 metres.

Om Prakash Singh, six-foot-seven, will go into the Asian Games in Guangzhou not as the favourite but as one of the strong contenders for the shot put gold. He should know his task would be tougher than the last time he visited Guangzhou. Then, he had won the Asian title, with 19.87, ahead of Chinese Taipei's Chang Ming-Huang and Chinese Zhang Jun.

The familiar characters, including Asian record holder Sultan Abdulmajeed Al-Hebshi of Saudi Arabia, would be there again in Guangzhou. Om Prakash may have to bring off something close to his season best (19.99m) to prevail again.

The inexplicable slumps this season had been interspersed with high quality marks, eight of them over 19.50m. The 23-year-old Haryanvi, who had started off as a basketball player before shifting to athletics, has a best of 20.02m recorded in Chennai last year.

Pankaj Advani (billiards & snooker)

Pankaj Advani, the ace Indian cueist and Asian Games defending champion, surely has not had the best of outings in the recent past. But in the Asian Games, the 25-year-old is expected to put all the setbacks behind him and focus on helping India in its medal hunt.

The Banglorean, with a host of World and Asian titles in his kitty, lost both his IBSF World titles to another ‘Master' Mike Russel in Pune in September and then was stunned by Alok Kumar in the National snooker final, also at the same venue. And only recently Dhruv Sitwala of Mumbai had upset the reigning World champion in the quarterfinal stage of the World Professional Billiards in Leeds (UK).

Pankaj on his return from Pune did highlight the fatigue factor. With a series of tournaments and nearly four or five selection camps that the BSFI had scheduled during the last six months, the top players sounded apprehensive before the final Asian Games camp under English coach Del Hill (snooker) and Filipino coach Jorge Dacer (pool).

But Pankaj is made of sterner stuff. “These recent reverses have only strengthened my resolve to succeed. Besides a host of Indians, the challenge will be from the Chinese and it all depends on how well one plays on a particular day. Hope I can repeat the feat again and bring home laurels for India,” he said.

— Kamesh Srinivasan, Y. B. Sarangi, Rakesh Rao, K. P. Mohan and Avinash Nair