Saurav getting better

The National champion and former World junior No. 1, Saurav Ghosal, won the first Asian Games medal, a bronze, for India in squash. The 20-year-old student of Leeds University, trained by coach Malcolm Willstrop, bounced back from a demoralising start in the semi-finals to tease the Malaysian, Ong Beng Hee, before bowing out in four games.

"In the first two games my opponent was brilliant and playing to perfection. In the third and fourth games, I took calculated risks and it worked well.

Thereafter, I could not sustain the momentum. But I lost to a better player,'' said Saurav after going down 1-9, 2-9, 9-6, 4-9 in the semi-finals.

"In the third game my opponent's backhand dominated. Down by four points in the fourth, I came under pressure, but I was the more experienced player and relied on that to get back into the game.

"I rarely play in glass courts. I had to adjust my timing because the white ball is slower,'' explained Ong Beng Hee.

Saurav had a great start to the competition, blowing away Armando Arnante and Kim Dong Woo in the first two rounds for the loss of just seven points in both the matches. In the quarterfinals, he beat compatriot Ritwik Bhattacharya 9-4, 9-0, 6-9, 9-7. And by this time, Saurav showed that he was getting better, and getting ready to make his mark in the future. Coach Cyrus Poncha, who had worked with Saurav at the India Cements Academy in Chennai, was quite pleased with the talented boy's performance.

He said that Saurav's bronze-winning effort augured well for the sport in the country.

"He is ranked No. 49 in the world now, and I expect him to move into the top 20 soon,'' he said.

"I am very happy to have won the bronze medal. It means a lot to me,'' said Saurav, who won the British Open under-19 title in 2004.

He also claimed the bronze medal at the 2004 SAF Games and stood fifth in the 2006 Asian Championship in Chinese Taipei.

Over the years Indians had won nine bronze medals in rowing at the Asian Games. In Doha, it was time to make a quality jump, and Bajranglal Thakar showed the way by winning the silver medal in the single sculls on the final day of the rowing competition.

On the penultimate day of the competition, Bijender Singh and Kiran Yalamanchi won the double sculls bronze. A delighted Indian coach Ismail Baig observed then that it was a great achievement as the Indians had struggled to make an impact in sculling at that level for 16 years. The RFI (Rowing Federation of India) secretary-general, C. P. Singh Deo, who was the vice-president of the jury, said that it was a good sign and that he expected better results on the final day.

His hopes were not belied, as Bajranglal Thakar, followed by the `men's four' team won silver medals to make it a memorable outing for the Indian rowing squad.

Bajranglal, who finished fourth in the men's double sculls, gave a tough fight to the eventual gold medal winner, Eun Chui Shin of Korea, in the single sculls. The Korean had an impressive rate of 40 strokes per minute for most of the 1000-metre race. It was quite creditable that Bajranglal followed him like a shadow and finished just about a second behind the champion.

The fact that the distance of the race was scaled down from 2000 metres suited a lot of rowers, but proved to be a disadvantage for top teams like China. But there was no denying Bajranglal the credit.

"A 2000-metre race is tough. It is easy to compete in 1000m races,'' admitted Bajranglal, 25, who had won the lightweight quadruple sculls gold in the Asian Championship in Hyderabad, India, last year. He had also won both the single and double sculls golds in the SAF Games this year.


He won a bronze, but deserved a better medal. India's middleweight boxer, Vijender, 21, fought a quality bout against Olympic welterweight champion Bakhtiyar Artayev of Kazakhstan, but could not keep pace with the speeding computer.

The tall and strongly built lad from Bhiwani had the measure of his opponent but the Kazakh kept getting points a few times even without hitting the Indian.

The Cuban coach working with the Indian team, B. I. Fernandez, was helpless as nobody could do anything about it. "My boy won. The opponent got too many free points,'' he said after the fierce semi-final bout in which Vijender recovered from a slow start to keep the Kazakh at bay.

The final score read 29-24 in favour of the Athens Olympic champion who got off to a good start, leading 8-4 in the first round.

"I fought hard, but I was not successful. In the first round, my opponent got four points more, and I didn't take that many hits. He is a very good fighter, but next time I will beat him,'' said Vijender, who was quite composed despite feeling robbed of a berth in the final.

Throughout the bout the score kept jumping in favour of the Kazakh even without any correlation to the punches he threw. Vijender bridged the gap up to 22-24 but there was another spurt that put paid to his hopes as the seconds ran out on the clock. "I expected to win this fight,'' said Vijender who had won the silver medal at the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne, and the gold at the SAF Games in Colombo.

"My opponent was very good. I am sure I will see him again,'' said Artayaev in acknowledgement of Vijender's ability.

Vijender was pretty sharp in the first two bouts on way to the semi-finals. He beat Mustafa Farrah of Syria 34-18 in the first round. In the quarterfinals, the referee stopped the contest in the second round after Vijender proved too good for Shukuralla Atajanov of Turkmenistan.

Vijender admits that he has scope to improve a lot more. "I want to improve my strength. My footwork and straight punches are my strength,'' he said.

Geetika Jakhar was initiated into wrestling in her hometown, Hissar (Haryana), at a very young age. She was a very aggressive girl and her grandfather thought wrestling was the best way to harness her energies.

Once Geetika developed a passion for the sport, her father Satvir decided to admit her to a proper training programme, obviously with the intention of making her an international star. But then, `akhara' wrestling was not the best way to go about it. However, Haryana's decision to force the `akharas' to provide mats helped Geetika in her early development.

Geetika joined a state-run academy in Hissar and started winning medals by displaying her grit. Her first major break came when she won the gold medal in the 67kg category at the Asian Junior Championship in 2001. A year later, she reached the final in the Asian Championship in New Delhi scoring impressive wins en route. In the final though, Geetika gave up midway through the bout and had to settle for a silver.

Her determination to excel saw Geetika drop her weight by over 10 kilos. She competed in the 55kg category at the Commonwealth Championship in Canada in 2003 and won the gold. In 2005 she successfully defended her title in Cape Town, South Africa, but in the World Junior Championship in Lithuania a week later, Geetika had to be content with a silver medal.

Geetika finally decided that 63kg was her best option for the Asian Games.

The silver medal she won in Doha was just reward for the years of toil she had put in. And by Indian standards, it was a memorable achievement, for it was after a gap of 16 years that any Indian had made it to the final of the wrestling competition in the Asian Games. Ombir Singh was the last grappler to enter a final at the Asian Games — in Beijing.

The loss in the final, that too by a fall to Japanese Icho Kaori, will haunt Geetika, but she has written a new chapter in Indian women's wrestling.

When she withdrew from the final of the Open National in Delhi in October, complaining of an upset stomach, there were doubts whether she would be able to tackle the Asian Games two months hence. Manjeet Kaur not only proved herself in subsequent meets but also delivered when the crunch came — the silver in the individual 400 metres and a brilliant anchor in the longer relay that fetched the solitary gold for the country in athletics in Doha. And this despite the burns she suffered on her thighs reportedly through a spilled bowl of soup.

In a season when the quarter-milers in both sections have struggled to post decent timings, Manjeet's 52.17 seconds for the silver behind Kazakh Olga Tereshkova was an excellent effort. No one thought she or any other Indian was capable of such a timing the way the women kept clocking 53-plus through October and November. It was a different matter that she had timed 53.02 in Delhi in March and 52.58 for the seventh place the same month in the Commonwealth Games.

It was in the build-up to the Olympics in 2004 that Manjeet came into prominence with her national record of 51.05 in Chennai that erased K. M. Beenamol's mark of 51.21s. The 24-year-old Punjab woman was to play a major role in the Indian longer relay team making the final at the Athens Games, but she took no part in the final, indisposed as she was the previous night.

Next year Manjeet confirmed her status with an effortless win in the Asian Championships in Incheon in 51.50. The rest of Asia looked in awe as Manjeet and Satti Geetha both clocked sub-52 to take the gold and silver.

An Inspector with the Punjab Police, Manjeet had come into national limelight by claiming the silver in the Asian Junior Championships in Brunei in 2001. She had clocked 54.11 then after timing 53-plus at home.

"If anyone can better 50 seconds in India it is Manjeet only," says the former National coach, J. S. Saini who was the chief junior coach at Brunei. "For, she has the desire to work and punish herself."

"We are confident," was all that Bobby George would say on the eve of his and Anju's departure for Doha. Anju's husband and coach would not hazard a guess as to what could be the distance that she could be aiming for in the Asian Games.

Bobby was cautious. Understandably so since the year had not gone according to plan for the current international face of Indian athletics. In fact, it had been tough for the long jumper beginning with the Asian indoor championships in February and the World Indoors and the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne in March. Anju jumped 6.54 metres in Melbourne and as the year goes out, that has remained her best for the season.

Beginning with the 6.74 in 2002, she had closed the next three years at 6.70 (Paris World Championships), 6.83m (Athens Olympics) and 6.75 (World Athletics Finals). She had this knack of producing her season best in big championships.

Doha should not have been different. But Anju was not really hundred per cent fit in the run-up, a heel injury suffered before the Doha Super Grand Prix in May causing untold misery for the next three months before she made a return to competition at the South Asian Games in Colombo.

A fever, the cold weather in Doha and her rhinitis problem all contributed to a below-par performance. Japanese Kumiko Ikeda proved too good in the end with a 6.81m.

Anju had to bring off a desperate last jump of 6.52 metres to edge Kazakh Olga Rypakova by three centimetres for the silver. "A silver is not bad after all," she would say later, disappointed that she could not defend her Busan gold that incidentally came at just 6.53 back in 2002, but far better than a bronze medal.

An Olympic medal has remained Anju's dream and by the looks of it she should be there at Beijing less than two years from now.

Kamesh Srinivasan, K. P. Mohan & Kirti Patil