Bajrang — Ringing loud and clear

India’s haul of 10 medals, including Bajrang Punia’s gold, in the Asian Championship points to a bright future for the nation in wrestling.

Bajrang Punia of India attempts to flip his opponent Lee Seung Chul of South Korea in the men’s 65kg freestyle final at the Asian Wrestling Championship in New Delhi recently. Punia accounted for India’s lone gold medal in the meet.   -  Sandeep Saxena

After speeding on the path to self-destruction, Indian wrestling is now looking for a revival.

After Sushil Kumar, the only Indian to win two individual Olympic medals (bronze at 2008 Beijing and silver at 2012 London), and Yogeshwar Dutt, a bronze medal winner at the London Olympics, did the nation proud, the Indian men failed to win a medal at the Rio Olympics last year.

In the run-up to the 2016 Rio Games, Indian wrestling was embroiled in a controversy with Sushil Kumar and Narsingh Yadav, who had secured the Olympic quota place, fighting for the lone berth in the team. An adamant national federation, which went back on its promise of a trial, and the judiciary, which stressed on a democratic approach, had disappointed Sushil when all he wanted was a trial to select the wrestler who would represent Indian in the Rio Games. With Narsingh Yadav caught in a doping violation thereafter and Yogeshwar Dutt cutting a sorry figure in Rio, India was in the doldrums as far as men’s wrestling was concerned.

However, Bajrang Punia, who won the bronze medal in the 60kg category at the 2013 World Championship, stepped up to win India’s only gold medal in the Asian Championship that concluded in New Delhi recently. But it was clear that the future of Indian wrestling was very much in the hands of the women.

What Sakshi Malik had done at the Rio Games was tremendous. Woefully down on points and with time running out, she defied the odds to claim a bronze medal. The medal lifted the spirit of the entire nation before P.V. Sindhu brought immense joy by claiming the women’s singles silver in badminton.

While Sakshi, 24, who recently married fellow wrestler Satyawart Kadian, can be the driving force of Indian wrestling, Vinesh Phogat, technically the most accomplished among the women wrestlers in the country, is back in the driver’s seat. In the Asian Championship, the 22-year-old wrestler, with nearly 50,000 followers on twitter, fought intensely and with confidence, bout after bout, including the final against the eventual winner Sae Nanjo of Japan.

Vinesh, who was stretchered off after having suffered a knee injury during her 48kg quarterfinal bout in the Rio Olympics, put up such a splendid show in the 55kg class to end up with the silver medal.

After undergoing a surgery at the Kokila Ben Hospital in Mumbai, with prompt support and guidance of JSW Sports, Vinesh went through rehabilitation with patience. After having had such a harrowing time, it was only natural that Vinesh, or for that matter her coach Kuldeep Malik, considered the ‘podium finish’ as a bonus. After all, by taking part in the Asian Championship, they were only trying to gauge where Vinesh stood, and how well she could compete on her return to the international arena.

For Sakshi, it was equally challenging to maintain her equanimity after all the adulation and riches showered on her post Rio Olympics and sweat it out during training ahead of the Asian Championship. There was talk about her shifting from 58kg to 60kg, but that proved to be a blessing for Sarita — who swapped position with Sakshi — as she too landed the silver medal in that weight category.

The fact that it required two Olympic champions from Japan, Risako Kawai and Sara Dosho, to stop Sakshi and Divya Kakran, another surprise silver medallist in the 69kg class, proved that the Indian women were taking their role rather seriously.

With Ritu Phogat and Jyothi winning a bronze each, the Indian women accounted for six of the 10 medals won by India in the Asian Championship. Sandeep Tomar, the lone gold medal winner in the last edition, hurt his knee and lost early in the men’s freestyle, but the sport is such that injuries cannot be wished away.

The Greco-Roman wrestlers did their bit for the host, as Harpreet Singh (80kg) and Anil kumar (85kg) won bronze medals to provide India the initial thrust in the championship.

The National federation is clear that whoever wins the Olympic quota would make it to the Olympic team. And that every wrestler has to go through the process to be in the reckoning for the national team.

Sumit Malik moved from eighth place in the last edition to win the silver this time in the 125kg class. He owes his performance to Sushil Kumar’s guidance.

With Bajrang Punia, mentored by Yogeshwar Dutt, leading the way, the future of Indian wrestling does look bright. The key will be in staying away from doping and controversy.

Thanks to the professional league — and to an extent the popular Hindi film ‘Dangal’ — wrestling has captured everyone’s imagination and gained tremendous popularity. It offers an ideal platform for the aspirants to break into the big league and be an inspiration for the new generation.

The next challenge for Indian wrestlers will be the World Championships in Paris in August.

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