Indian wrestlers at CWG 2022: Past failures forgotten, fresh legacies fashioned

India’s performance in Birmingham was a bit underwhelming as some of the reputed pugilists failed to live up to expectations. Nonetheless, new talents stole the limelight and the future does look bright for Indian boxing.

Ravi Dahiya, Vinesh Phogat and Sakshi Malik

Ravi Dahiya, Vinesh Phogat and Sakshi Malik | Photo Credit: AP/Reuters

India’s performance in Birmingham was a bit underwhelming as some of the reputed pugilists failed to live up to expectations. Nonetheless, new talents stole the limelight and the future does look bright for Indian boxing.

The increase in the gold medal count at the Birmingham Commonwealth Games should hearten the Indian wrestling contingent even though there were depleted fields in a few weight categories.

India again secured medals in all the 12 weight categories, improving its gold-medal tally to six — one more than the tally at Gold Coast. Men won four gold medals, while women won two.

Since its return to the Games fold in Delhi 2010, wrestling at the Games has been dominated by India.

In 2010, when Greco Roman was part of the programme and only one bronze medal was awarded, India emerged as the top nation, winning 19 medals, including 10 gold. Four years later, in the absence of Greco Roman, India slipped to second place after claiming five gold — two less than Canada’s seven — but picked up the maximum number of medals — 13 out of 14 categories.

India returned to the top spot in 2018, securing medals in all the 12 weight classes.

The Indian wrestlers increased their Gold medal count from the Gold Coast CWG by one.

The Indian wrestlers increased their Gold medal count from the Gold Coast CWG by one.

Upsetting the apple cart

Naveen Malik was the find of the Games. Malik claimed the men’s 74kg title which was bagged by Sushil Kumar at Gold Coast. The 19-year-old, who had shocked formidable opponents such as Jitender Kumar, Gourav Baliyan and Sagar Jaglan to win the selection trials, made his mark in Birmingham.

“The 74kg trials had wrestlers from both 74kg and 79kg. Coming from 70kg, Naveen surprised everyone by winning the trials. He proved himself in the Games with his exceptional performance,” said men’s coach Vinod Kumar.

While Olympic silver medallist Ravi Kumar Dahiya (57kg) cruised to his maiden gold, Worlds and Olympic medallist Bajrang Punia (65kg) overcame a lean patch to clinch his second successive gold. Bajrang, who was troubled by injuries and wrestled defensively after the Olympics, was delighted to get back to his natural attacking game.

“People used to say they did not see the attacking Bajrang of late. I tried to play my natural game and have succeeded. I will try to improve my game for the World Championships in September,” said Bajrang.

The Pakistani challenge

Worlds silver medallist Deepak Punia (86kg), who recovered from an injury, displayed his improved defence to take his first gold. His final match against Muhammad Inam, a gold medallist in 2010 and 2018, was much anticipated as the Pakistani had beaten India’s Anuj Kumar to take the 84kg gold in the Delhi Games. Deepak’s personal coach Virender Kumar said the Olympics setback must have played on the young wrestler’s mind and held him back from exhibiting his attacking game.

Deepak Nehra (97kg) and Mohit Grewal (125kg) — who had an injury in his left leg — showed glimpses of their talent while bagging bronze medals. “Deepak Nehra came through trials which had established wrestlers like Mausam Khatri and Satyawart Kadian. He lost to the Canadian wrestler (Nishan Randhawa) due to his own fault. He could have given us a better result,” said Vinod. According to Vinod, the challenge posed by the Pakistani wrestlers was a new aspect of the Games.

“Pakistanis used to send good wrestlers in one or two categories, but this time they fielded a good batch of wrestlers. It’s nice that our wrestlers performed well against them.”

The taste of victory: Bajrang Punia with his gold medal. It was his second successive gold in Commonwealth Games in the men’s 65kg category.

The taste of victory: Bajrang Punia with his gold medal. It was his second successive gold in Commonwealth Games in the men’s 65kg category. | Photo Credit: AFP

Back to winning ways

National women’s team head coach Jitender Yadav was relieved to see seasoned wrestlers Olympics bronze medallist Sakshi Malik (62kg) and Worlds bronze medallist Vinesh Phogat (53kg) breaking psychological barriers to assert their class again. “Both of them are world-class wrestlers who had psychological issues. It was a big challenge to bring them out of that and it took some time. I am glad that they performed freely and were successful,” said Jitender.

Sakshi, who had secured a silver and a bronze in the earlier editions, was thrilled to shed her indifferent form and low self-confidence to claim her maiden gold medal.

“This is the biggest medal for me since the (2016) Olympics (bronze). I never got to hold the tricolour after that. Standing on the podium with the national anthem playing was a dream come true,” said Sakshi, who rallied to beat World Under-23 and Pan-American champion Ana Godinez Gonzalez of Canada in the title clash.

Vinesh, who had a forgettable Olympics followed by an elbow surgery, also regained some confidence by producing some commanding performances and securing her third successive gold.

Jitender expected World Championships silver medallist Anshu Malik (57kg) and Worlds Under-23 silver medallist Pooja Gehlot (50kg) to perform better. Anshu got silver, while Pooja won bronze.

“I expected better results from Anshu and Pooja Gehlot. But Anshu had an elbow issue, while Pooja had a sore ankle. Still, Anshu could have won a gold. Even though her Nigerian opponent (Odunayo Adekuoroye) in the final was a two-time defending champion, Anshu is an up-and-coming talent,” said Jitender.

Long awaited: Sakshi Malik is ecstatic after clinching her first gold medal at the Commonwealth Games. She overcame low self-confidence and indifferent form to achieve to feat.

Long awaited: Sakshi Malik is ecstatic after clinching her first gold medal at the Commonwealth Games. She overcame low self-confidence and indifferent form to achieve to feat. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Now Anshu is likely to miss the World Championships to recover from her injury.

Divya Kakran (68kg) got her second consecutive bronze and Pooja Sihag (76kg) her first.

Setback

The wrestlers may have upheld India’s reputation as a powerhouse in wrestling among the Commonwealth nations, but the standard is much higher in Asian-level and world-level competitions.

Nevertheless, Indian wrestling has been blossoming, with wrestlers winning medals in every age group and in all competitions consistently. This has been made possible by the abundance of talent and the increase in confidence and aspirations of the Indian wrestlers following the country’s success at the World Championships and Olympics in the last 14 years.

The absence of wrestling in the 2026 Commonwealth Games, therefore, comes as a big shock for the Indian wrestling fraternity. It will not only rob wrestlers of a platform to compete, but also hamper India’s position in the medals tally.

The Indian Olympic Association (IOA) and the UWW Commonwealth Wrestling Committee have shown their eagerness to take up the issue with the authorities concerned. An outcome in favour of the sport will equally please the Indian wrestlers and their keen followers.

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