While it might not have made the headlines back home, a week ago the Indian women’s wrestling team pulled off its best performance at the Asian cadet championships (U-17), winning eight out of 10 gold medals on offer at Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Even more stunning was the fact that India racked up a 6-1 win record against wrestling giant Japan. It’s a result that might prove to be significant in the years to come. Indeed, it was a prospect few expected before India’s first bout of the tournament.

Shruti Kumari admits she was worried when she learned that her first opponent at the cadet championships, in the women's 46kg category was Momoka Kawamura of Japan. “ Thoda dari hui thi (I was a little scared),” says the 17-year-old from Hisar, Haryana. It wasn’t that she’d lost to Kawamura before. Both were competing in their first international tournament. It was simply the thought of facing a Japanese wrestler that troubled her.

For most Indian women wrestlers, wrestlers from Japan are not just to be respected but also feared. That reputation is well deserved. Ever since women’s wrestling was introduced at the Olympics, 15 out of 24 gold medals have gone to Japan. Among the Indian seniors, wins over Japanese opponents are rare. That level of domination extended to the age groups.

Shyam Budaki, coach of the Indian women’s cadet team, has seen this before. When he first took the Indian team to the Asian cadet championships five years ago, the Japanese girls won six of the 10 gold medals and racked up a 5-1 record against Indian wrestlers. The only Indian to pick up a win was future Olympian and world silver medallist Anshu Malik.

Budaki says Indian wrestlers at the cadet championships earlier would look to see whether they had a Japanese wrestler in their draw. "If there was a Japanese in the draw, many of our girls would just assume they’d be fighting for either a silver or a bronze. They just conceded mentally that Japan would win the gold."

This makes it understandable why Shruti, who grew up admiring twice Olympic champion Risako Kawai, was nervous in Bishkek before going up against Kawamura. As the bout got underway, though, the result wouldn’t be along expected lines. The Indian coasted to an easy 6-0 victory.

Shruti's win, in the first match of the tournament, set off a chain reaction. Over the next couple of days, Indians faced Japanese wrestlers seven times and came out on top in six. The one loss, for Mansi Bhadana against Hakura Kobaru in the 69kg category would be by the narrowest of margins — on criteria — after scores were tied 4-4. To say this was a shock would be understating it. “To medal in all 10 weight categories and beat Japan so convincingly. That’s never happened before. Everyone was congratulating us. Even the UWW (United World Wrestling) president came and said we had competed very well,” says Budaki.

“Usne boht badhiya khela (she played really well),” Budaki says of Shruti’s win that started it all. “After that, everyone got the confidence."

While Shruti might have been the first on the day to cause an upset, Budaki also believes that it was building up. “We had been getting close to Japan in the age categories each year. But because Japan has been dominating for so long, there was always a fear that remained in the back of your mind. This year was only the first year where we finally turned our capabilities to performance,” says Budaki.

Benefit of increased competition

He credits the performance to multiple changes that have taken place in the Indian calendar in recent years. For one, he says, the Indian federation has been increasing tournaments in the calendar season. Where wrestlers once only had the national championships to look forward to, there are now national ranking tournaments as well. “Girls called to compete in the selection trials for tournaments are those who have medalled at a national event. Earlier, if a girl didn’t win in the nationals, there was no way for her to be called to a trial. But this time, because there are ranking tournaments, we are getting girls who might have missed out in the nationals but are still very talented. We have always had the talent, but now those girls have a platform,” says Budaki.

“In this team we had some girls who came from the under-17 national championships, but also those who came from the Under-15 national championships and the U-17 and U-15 ranking tournaments.”

Pulkit is a wrestler who benefited from a ranking tournament and made the Indian team to Bishkek. She won a bronze in the 65kg category.  This policy exists across age groups. Priya Malik, who won gold in the 73kg category, is also competing in the U-20 Asian junior championships next week. Although just 17, she was able to compete in the selection trials after winning a junior ranking tournament. Malik in particular was impressive. Already a cadet world champion in 2021, in a tournament where Japan did not participate, she won all her matches in Bishkek either by technical superiority or by pinning her opponent.

The competition for India’s young wrestlers, however, doesn’t end just because they have medalled in Asia. “We have the World championships on 25th July and the same girls who have won gold in Asia will have to take part in selection trials for that team. There is no guarantee that just because they won gold in Asia, they will be going to the World Championships,” says Budaki.

Not only are wrestlers being selected from a wider base, the individual wrestlers are also getting stronger. “When the team came to Lucknow in April for its first training session in the national camp, we made the girls sit together on the first day of training session and told them, 'You are the first team which has the capacity to win 10 golds.' And they actually did,” says Budaki. “Right now, I don’t think you will see girls from any team in Asia train as hard as our girls do."

Asian Cadet Championships by Sportstar Online
 

The work could be seen on the mat in Reena's bout against her Japanese opponent. “At first, what worried me is that I thought the Japanese girls are very quick and have a very good attack," says Reena, who beat Japan's Uta Nishioka 10-0 on her way to a gold in the 53kg category.  "But after 10-15 seconds, I realised I was very comfortable. When you put your hands on each other, you know who is the stronger wrestler and I felt I was much stronger than her. Even though she was fast, I was able to defend against her easily,” says Reena.

For all the team's success, Budaki says it’s best to be cautious in predicting the progress of the girls. For one, he says the Japanese team which competed at the Asian Championships was coming without any international experience, since Japan rarely sent teams for competitions (and never any age group squads) outside the country during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Chinese and North Korean teams too didn't participate in Bishkek. Although neither side has the all-round pedigree of Japan, Budaki admits their absence did lower the overall strength of the field.

Budaki also believes that the path from performance at the U-17 level to success in the senior categories is a long one. Budaki points out that four weight categories at the U-17 level (40kg, 43kg, 46kg and 49kg) in which India won gold in Bishkek are lower than the lowest weight category in the senior women's (50kg) division. “Right now, a lot depends on whether they will continue to get physically stronger. Beyond a certain age, it’s difficult for girls to grow. It’s a great result for them for sure. But the jump from cadets to juniors and seniors is not easy,” he says.

For now, Budaki hopes the team can build on its performance at perform at the U-17 World Championships that begins later this month. “It will be good to see if we can maintain our performance there. Until now not many were worried about us, but other countries now know India is a team to look out for. The worlds will be a good test for us,” he says.

It’s a test Shruti and many more Indian girls are more confident of acing now. “In the past, I used to be a little nervous about facing girls from top countries such as Japan. Now, I know that there is nothing special about them. Indian girls are as good,” she says.