Segueing from mud pits to mats

Narsingh Yadav’s bronze medal at the World Championship is a confirmation that moves or manoeuvres developed in akharas or mud pits in India can work in any setting.

Narsingh Yadav poses with the bronze medal he won in the 74 kg freestyle at World Championship in Las Vegas recently.   -  PTI

Narsingh Yadav (red) grapples with Daisuke Shimada of Japan in the 74 kg freestyle bout in the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon. Narsingh won a bronze medal.   -  REUTERS

Wrestlers are the action heroes of Indian sport. With skills honed in mud pits and using native guile, they pull off sensational performances on faster mat surfaces. Narsingh Yadav added his name to the list of international medal winners with a superb manoeuvre to outwit his French rival, Zelimkhan Khadjiev, at the 2015 World Championships in Las Vegas.

Trailing 4-12 and with less than a minute left in the 74 kg freestyle bronze medal bout, the burly Indian flipped his rival over his shoulder, sending him crashing to the mat on his back. Named ‘dhak’ in local wrestling terminology, Narsingh pinned Khadjiev with a headlock followed by a heave.

Asked if he had used a tactic worked out with his coach for such situations, the 26-year-old wrestler replied, “Coaches won’t know how a bout will pan out during a competition. It is for the wrestler to react to situations. I was aware the bout would be over by the time I try to catch up by collecting points. I just tried it out of desperation; he was surprised.”

Khadjiev was winded and Narsingh kept him pinned down for five seconds to confirm his bronze medal and a freestyle quota place in the 74 kg category for the Rio Olympics next year.

The ‘dhak’ (available on youtube) will now be replayed a countless times by coaches and wrestlers up against Indians in competitions.

The Frenchman’s coach reacted with horror, bolting from his seat and holding his head with both hands, on seeing the move, an equivalent of a knockout in boxing. In India, however, Narsingh’s lock and flip of Khadjiev will be replayed and watched with pride.

The 2012 London Olympics saw Sushil Kumar and Yogeshwar Dutt win medals in freestyle against world-class opponents. The bouts were watched by many Indian fans on television and cheered by grapplers from akharas (mud pits). Sushil won the silver medal in the 66 kg category, while Yogeshwar claimed the bronze in the 60 kg class. Both returned home to a hero’s welcome.

Confident of pulling off victory in any situation, Sushil became an inspiration for wrestlers in mud pits with his daring style, merging courage and craft at the international level. The performances of Sushil and Yogeshwar at the London Games increased the fan following for wrestling.

The Indian grapplers with the talent and ability to adjust to the change from mud pit to mat have been largely successful. Narsingh leapt in celebration in Las Vegas, ran round the mat with raised hands, chased by the Indian coaches who lifted him on their shoulders.

For fellow wrestlers tracking Narsingh’s progress from akhara to the mat, the World Championship bronze is a confirmation that home-grown moves or manoeuvres can work in any setting.

“I have used this manoeuvre before and even won on the last point,” said Narsingh.

“We are taught many holds and techniques in mud pit wrestling. Mat wrestling is faster. For Indian wrestling to grow, mats should replace mud pits. Talented kids will then get used to mat wrestling. I was lucky to be based at the SAI centre and get used to mats,” added Narsingh, who is based at Kandivali (Mumbai) and is under coach Jagmal Singh.

He is of the view that mud pit wrestling will continue as long as there is money to be earned. “I took part in mud wrestling for the prize money. There is a limit to family support for a wrestler switching to mat wrestling, so many continue in mud wrestling to make a living,” Narsingh said.

JSW’s support for wrestling under the Sports Excellence Program is resulting in breakthroughs. Narsingh was among the eight wrestlers at the Worlds who were supported by JSW’s Sports Excellence Program. The group went one month in advance to train at the United States Olympic Training Centre, Colorado Springs.

“It helped us get used to the climate,” Narsingh said.

JSW has a physiotherapist for the wrestlers. Nutritionist, psychologist and strength-conditioning coach are all now part of the preparation team.

“Conditioning and recovery become crucial. Wrestling has changed from three rounds of two-minutes each to two three-minute rounds,” said Narsingh.

Talking of his quota place in the 74 kg class for the Rio Games, Narsingh said: “Winning a quota place almost a year in advance is good for India. I do not need to compete in the qualifiers and can plan my preparation and work on areas identified by coaches.

Narsingh, who last year won the bronze in the 74 kg class at the Asian Games, is looking to extend his form and fitness into the Olympic year. “My focus will be to ensure my form (continues) till then and remain injury free,” he noted.

“At the World Championships, I got a close look at others, including those who got quota places,” he said.

Olympic silver medallist Sushil moved up to the 74 kg class after the world body scrapped 66 kg post London Olympics.

Narsingh was not very keen on talking about the Indian entries in the 74 kg category for the Rio Olympics. “I won a medal for India and ensured a quota place. It is a big achievement. Let us celebrate my bronze now and leave the selection to the federation (Wrestling Federation of India),” he said.

Three years ago, at ExCel Centre, Narsingh watched from the stands as Sushil and Yogeshwar climbed the podium at the London Olympics.

“I was cheering other Indians at wrestling and boxing,” said Narsingh, who lost in the first round in London.

“I saw winners crying, second-place finishers in tears. It was my Olympic debut and I was raw. I am a different person now,” he added.