There's a steady improvement

THE state of affairs in Indian wrestling may not be pleasant but there is hardly a reason to believe that things would not improve in the future.

VIJAY LOKAPALLY

Double gold-medallist Palwinder Singh Cheema. He triumphed in the plus 96 kg category in both the Commonwealth Championship and the Canada Cup. — Pic. R. V. MOORTHY-

THE state of affairs in Indian wrestling may not be pleasant but there is hardly a reason to believe that things would not improve in the future. An Olympic medal may remain a dream, but there are hopes from a few youngsters who have emerged on the horizon.

The conquests at the Commonwealth Championship and the Canada Cup recently may not mean much since the competition lacked quality, but it gave the wrestlers a boost. Their journey to qualify for the Olympics has begun in earnest and this could be just a small step in that direction.

National freestyle coach Jagminder Singh made an apt assessment when he said, "This was nothing but a trip to provide exposure to our wrestlers. The quality may not have been great but the experience gained was invaluable. For a wrestler, nothing counts more than experience because it teaches you the important aspects of the sport. Our target is to qualify for the Olympics next year and I think we're moving in the right direction."

Kripa Shankar bagged a gold and a silver. — Pic. R. V. MOORTHY-

The recent outings in London and Ontario are being seen as an ideal platform for the wrestlers in three weight categories — 55 kg, 60 kg and 66 kg. It was a useful trip for Yogeshwar Dutt and Kripa Shankar, the latter a very experienced grappler. Yogeshwar won the gold at the Commonwealth, beating Kripa Shankar, who in turn won the gold at the Canada Cup, exacting sweet revenge.

As the coach observed, having regular camps has helped but he would love to see good competition at such camps. Yogeshwar and Shankar provide the competition to each other. And also raise hopes of more than one wrestler qualifying for the Olympics. The last two Olympics saw only one wrestler making the grade from India. At Atlanta, none had qualified and Pappu Yadav had been given a wild card entry, while Gurvinder had qualified in the Greco Roman at Sydney.

In the 60 kg category this time, Sushil Kumar is a good bet. He has won the gold medal twice in the World Cadet Championship and a gold at the Commonwealth championship this time showed the po<147,2,1>tential of this wrestler, who was given a tough fight by Krishan Kumar.

Geetika Jakhar, the lone Indian woman to win a gold in the Commonwealth Championship. — Pic. R. V. MOORTHY-

The 66-kg category offers Ramesh Kumar as an outstanding prospect, but then a knee injury has sidelined this wrestler. Pawan Kumar and Sokender Tomar are the other two strong contenders in this weight category.

In the higher weight categories — 74 kg, 84 kg, 96 kg, 96 kg plus — there is lack of competition and the coaches noted this was the key reason for Indian wrestlers not making the desired progress. Former Olympian Prem Nath pointed out, "There's no second string in these four weight categories and that makes the wrestlers complacent." For example, Bhagat Singh hardly gets a good fight in the 96 kg category while Palwinder Singh Cheema dominates the 96 kg plus category for a similar reason.

The Commonwealth championship in London and the Canada Cup thus provided some exposure to the wrestlers in the higher weight categories. Kripa Shankar figured in a pool of 26 wrestlers even as the others had varied challenges. Cheema had to contend with four wrestlers while Anuj Chaudhary had 12 grapplers in his weight category.

The Indian women display their medals at a felicitation function organised by the Sports Authority of India in New Delhi. — Pic. PTI.-

As Jagminder admitted, the wrestlers in the heavyweight categories gained a lot from the trip. Sujit Mann was adjudged the best wrestler in the Commonwealth championship while Cheema was the best in the Canada Cup. Former National coach Raj Singh reportedly was critical of the wrestlers participating in such competitions but Wrestling Federation of India officials argued that they had to find ways to give proper exposure to the youngsters. "What's the harm if the wrestlers participate in such competitions? At least there is some sense of achievement that keeps them going," said an official. It is another matter that in many finals the contestants happened to be Indians. Sujit Mann, Yogeshwar Dutt, Palwinder Singh Cheema, Anuj Chaudhary deserved credit for making the most from the trip.

The main aim of the trip was to give the wrestlers the exposure to prepare for the Olympics. Of course, the task on hand is to qualify. In the opinion of Prem Nath, much can be expected from the current crop, technically a sound bunch.

In the Greco Roman category too the Indians have made some significant gains. Mukesh Khatri won a gold in a tournament in Poland, beating a Russian in the quarterfinals. According to one of the coaches, winning against any Russian is considered creditable in wrestling circles.

Mukesh Khatri got rid of a Russian wrestler in the quarter-finals on way to a Greco-Roman gold in a meet in Poland. — Pic. RAJEEV BHATT-

The women wrestlers had a gold medallist in Geetika Jakhar. Having begun wrestling for women just seven years back, the Indians lag behind the Europeans in all departments of the sport. Having excelled at the Commonwealth championship, the women came a cropper in Canada, failing to win a single medal.

As Prem Nath said, "it's sad we've not been faring well in wrestling. There's no lack of talent but the sport needs a break. Maybe someone like Cheema, Mann or Chaudhary could provide the light." As for the trio, they promise to improve in the run to qualify for the Athens Olympics.

The medallists: Commonwealth Championship: Men:

Gold: Yogeshwar Dutt (55 kg), Sushil Kumar (60 kg), Sokender Tomar (66 kg), Sujit Mann (74 kg, best wrestler), Anuj Chaudhary (84 kg), Bhagat Singh (96 kg), Palwinder Singh Cheema (plus 96 kg); Silver: Kripa Shankar (55 kg), Krishan Kumar (60 kg), Pawan Kumar (66 kg) and Manandeep Singh (84 kg).

Women:

Gold: Geetika Jakhar (67 kg); Silver: Kamini Yadav (48 kg), Alka Tomar (55 kg), Manju Shekhawat (59 kg), Kiran Sihag (67 kg), Gursharan Preet Kaur (72 kg); Bronze: Sumel (48 kg), Neha Rathi (51 kg), Gurmeet Kaur (59 kg).

Canada Cup: Men:

Gold: Kripa Shankar (55 kg), Palwinder Singh Cheema (plus 96 kg, best wrestler); Silver: Yogeshwar Dutt (55 kg), Sushil Kumar (60 kg), Sujit Mann (74 kg); Bronze: Anuj Chaudhary (84 kg).