Lack of practice, stability add to India's wrestling woes

PTI Photo/Atul Yadav

The last decade has been very consistent for Indian wrestling at the global level. India have picked up medals at every Olympics since 2008, also winning 11 medals at the World Championships during this period. The 2017 edition of the Worlds, held recently in Paris, was a huge disappointment given this background. Not only did India return empty-handed, no Indian wrestler could even win more than two matches across the three categories -- freestyle, Greco-roman and women's wrestling.

Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, President of the Wrestling Federation of India, absolved the federation, putting the blame on a pre-tournament camp in France. "We completely wasted 15-20 days in France before the start of the tournament. There were no training facilities provided by the organisers. Our wrestlers did not get partners to practice with," Singh would tell PTI. US wrestling coach Cary Kolat, a two time world medalist himself, would post a snarky response on Twitter. "What about the other 350 days of prep time," he questioned.

There is no avoiding the fact that Indian results had slipped, admits Olympic bronze medalist Yogeshwar Dutt. "People are saying the standard of Indian wrestling has gone down. Looking at our performances, we shouldn't complain if others criticise us," he says. There are factors that contributed to India's dismal performance though, which merit mention.

The void left by legends

The unavailability of Yogeshwar, double Olympic medalist Sushil Kumar and Narsingh Yadav has left a gaping void in the Indian roster in men's freestyle. Yogeshwar has cut down to a large extent on his wrestling and is said to be focusing on next year's Commonwealth Games. The women's division too had a number of relatively inexperienced wrestlers competing at the World Championships. Olympic medalist Sakshi Malik had changed weight divisions while another top medal hope Vinesh Phogat was returning from injury. The Indian Greco-roman wrestlers, on the other hand, have never been a particularly strong force in the international circuit.

Lack of competition hurt the wrestlers

Since the Olympics, Indian wrestlers have been woefully untested in international competitions. This year, the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) sent wrestlers to compete in just three international competitions prior to the World Championships -- men's freestyle World Cup, Dan Kolov and Nikola Petrov Invitational and the Asian Championships.

The Asian Championships took place nearly two months before the World Championships, and not all of the wrestlers who competed in these tournaments would go on to make the team that traveled to Paris.

The lack of exposure has had an obvious effect on Indian performances in Paris, according to Yogeshwar. He cites the bouts of Sandeep Tomar (57kg freestyle) and Bajrang Punia (65kg freestyle) as examples. Both Sandeep and Bajrang were considered India's strongest competitors, with the latter also benefiting from one of the weakest draws in recent years. Both would lose in the second round of the competition. "Both of them are making the same mistakes they always have. Sandeep's ground game is weak while Bajrang's leg defence leaves him open to counter-attacks. In both their losses, their opponents caught them because of their shortcomings. These are not new issues," says Dutt.

"Unless you compete in international tournaments, you won't know where you are lacking. The World Championships are a very high level of competition. You can't go there unless you are completely prepared.

In hindsight, if the women's team had competed in tournaments like the Spanish Grand Prix, as they had last year, Vinesh Phogat would have had a chance to study America's Victoria Anthony's game on the mat. As it turned out, Vinesh competed against Anthony at the Worlds and was pinned.

Instability in coaching

The Indian teams have also gone a year without a foreign coach now. The WFI had decided not to renew the contracts of the foreign coaches -- Vladimir Mestvirishvili (freestyle), Emzar Makharadze (Greco-Roman) and Roin Doborjginidze (women's freestyle) -- with replacements just shortlisted so far.

"We need a foreign coach to join the camp as quickly as possible. Our coaches are good, but where our foreign coach Vladimir (Mestvirishvili) was good at was in his ability to understand our opponent's technique. He would quickly find out their weaknesses and strengths and tell us how we were supposed to wrestle against them," says Yogeshwar.

Is there a lack of depth in talent?

For some, the malaise in Indian wrestling goes deeper. It is a question of talent, one that a national team coach had mentioned off the record a few months back. "We simply don't have another wrestler like Sushil Kumar or even Yogeshwar or Narsingh Yadav," he had said.

Those comments were backed up by former national coach and Dronacharya award winner Yashvir Singh when he suggested India would take "another 10 or fifteen years to produce a talent like Sushil Kumar."

Yogeshwar disagrees with that assessment, though. "I don't think it is a problem of talent," he says. "We have plenty of that in India. Even at the World Championships, I felt there were positives. One of the strengths of Indian wrestlers is our stamina. In none of our bouts did our wrestlers lose because they were tired. They were defeated because of problems in their technique. That can be worked on."

However, Yogeshwar warns against complacency even though there are no major tournaments on the wrestling calendar till the Asian Games and Commonwealth Games next year. "Abhi se plan karna padega (we must plan from now itself). We can't go (on) in this manner in the future. Our wrestlers need to compete in tournaments at least every two months. We need to get a foreign coach immediately."

"We have problems but there is nothing about it that can't be fixed," he says.