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Asian C'ships takeaways: Youngsters step up, women excel

Bajrang Punia in action against Lee Seungchul in the final of the men's 65kg freestyle category. Manvender Vashist/PTI

With 10 medals -- including a gold and five silvers -- India's campaign at the Asian Wrestling Championships in New Delhi was their best ever at the continental tournament. From a purely numerical perspective the result should calm some of the concerns Indian wrestling might have felt going into the 2020 Olympic cycle.

New era

This uncertainty was because the current Olympic cycle was the first in more than a decade in which the mainstays of Indian wrestling -- Sushil Kumar, Yogeshwar Dutt and Narsingh Yadav among men, and Geeta and Babita Phogat among the women -- are not expected to play a major role. Those worries were only exacerbated at the World Cup in Iran earlier this year where India lost all but three out of 32 contests. "Sushil, Yogeshwar and Narsingh were the pillars on which Indian wrestling stood," says Brij Bhushan Sharan, president of the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI). "For us to lose all of them together was a major loss. We knew it will not be easy to replace them." Results at the Asian Championships proved though that the supply chain of Indian wrestling is still in order. Yogeshwar says he expected it to be as much. "At some point, the senior players have to retire," says Yogeshwar. "But it gives an opportunity for the younger wrestlers to come up. And they have many advantages that we didn't have. There was a time when we did have quality wrestlers, but what we didn't have was an Olympic medal. Hence, we didn't entertain thoughts about winning one. These youngsters now don't carry that burden. They expect to win all these medals."

Rise of women's wrestling

Six of the medals India won -- including four of the silvers -- came through women's wrestling. In contrast, the two men's events -- freestyle and Greco-Roman -- yielded just four medals between them. The result saw India finishing second behind Japan on the points tally for the women's competition -- the hosts' best-ever performance at the Asian Championships. While Vinesh Phogat (55kg) and Sakshi Malik (60kg) are relative veterans on the international circuit, three of the medallists -- Ritu Phogat in 48kg, Sarita in 58kg and Divya Sain in 69kg -- were newcomers competing in their maiden Asian Championships. India has never had a particularly stacked bench in the middle weights of the women's division and Sarita's performance in the 58kg division will create some happy headaches for the Indian coaches going into the Paris World Championships. Olympic medallist Sakshi was expected to compete in the 58kg division originally but Sarita -- who came close to beating Sakshi at the Pro Wrestling League (PWL) -- might be expected to stake a claim now. 18-year-old Sain is among the brightest prospects in Indian wrestling today. Despite being pinned in her final match against Olympic gold medallist Sara Dosho, Sain impressed with her irreverence for her opponent and situation. "This was a tournament we gave her just for exposure," says women's coach Kuldeep Malik. "Even though she lost, she made three attacks. She showed no fear even against a very senior opponent. That is a great quality."

Return from injury

Three of India's medals were particularly significant as they came from wrestlers who were making a return from injury. Vinesh, who won silver in the 55kg division, was competing in her first international competition nearly a year after her knee ligament was snapped in a quarterfinal bout at the Rio Olympics. Vinesh was at a severe disadvantage as she was competing in her heaviest-ever weight divison, but still came close to beating Japan's Sae Nanjo. In the men's 125kg division Sumit Malik -- who had been advised by a doctor last year to stop wrestling if he didn't want to aggravate a slipped disc in his spine -- briefly held the lead against Iran's Yadollah Mohebi before eventually losing 6-2. Bajrang Punia showed just how much he had improved after a knee injury he suffered at the PWL earlier this year by winning India's solitary gold. En route he beat Iran's Meisam Nassiri, just a couple of months after he suffered a technical fall defeat against the same opponent at the World Cup.

Men slip up

Remove Bajrang's medal from the equation and Indian's men's wrestling scoresheet makes for dismal viewing. Of course, there was an element of misfortune too. Defending gold medallist Sandeep Tomar was leading comfortably in his opening round bout of the 57kg division before he suffered a freak injury. However, there was little explanation for the remainder of the performances, with only Satyawart Kadian even making it to the repechage rounds. While the Greco-Roman discipline has long been the weakest in the sport in India, the performance in New Delhi was poorer than the one at the same competition just a year ago in Bangkok. Indian performances in the discipline seem to have regressed, with perhaps a bit of cheer coming from the bronze won by 24-year-old Harpreet Singh in the men's 80kg division -- his second at the Asian Championships and India's first this year.

Final hurdle

While India reached a record six finals at the Asian Championships, the performance has to be seen in context of the competition the home country's wrestlers beat to get to that position. This being a non-Olympic year, a number of countries had sent developmental squads to the tournament. With the exception of Bajrang, who beat the defending Asian Champion Nassiri, and perhaps Sain, who was essentially competing as a junior, no Indian beat a wrestler with a superior international record. A number of Indians benefitted from relatively easy draws -- Jyoti, won just a single bout en route the bronze in the women's 75kg division. The moment India faced a genuinely world-class competitor, the result was disappointingly lopsided. "I don't think we can beat the Japanese wrestlers in this lifetime or the next," said Sakshi after her loss inside three minutes to Olympic champion Risako Kawai. Indeed, Harphool's narrow 7-6 loss to Olympic silver medallist Rei Heiguchi of Japan must be seen as a creditable performance in this context.

Selection issues resurface

Indian wrestling and selection controversy have never strayed far from each other. The Sushil-Narsingh saga prior to the Olympics might have barely faded from public consciousness but there was another similar situation ahead of the Asian Championships when Sakshi won a selection trial to compete in the 58kg division. As it turns out, Sakshi eventually felt she couldn't make weight for that category in time for the tournament and decided to compete in the 60kg division. The winner of the selection trials for that weight class -- Sarita -- was asked to shift to 58kg instead. The shuffle ultimately worked out with both wrestlers winning silver, but there was little denying the arbitrariness of it all. The WFI, for its part, feels that the process of conducting a trial a month before the actual competition affected India's performance in the men's freestyle event in particular. In the 70kg division Vinod Kumar Omprakash, who was in fine form at the time of the trials, looked particularly poor on the day of his bout at the Asian Championships. "If we could have held trials a little closer to the tournament, we might have picked better wrestlers," says Sharan. "We are trying to change the procedure. Because if we decide that someone isn't shaping up well and decide to replace them, it ends up with them taking us to court."