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In bid to revive international career, Sushil Kumar shows up at Wrestling Nationals

Jonathan Selvaraj/ESPN Photo

On the evening of the first day of the Senior Wrestling Nationals on Thursday, the attention of the crowd in the stands of Indore's Abhay Prashal Stadium drifted from the Greco Roman wrestlers on the three mats below them to a dingy corridor in the bowels of the building.

Weigh-ins for Day 2 were underway. Away from the action, athletes had been jogging, skipping and doing some last-minute sweating to drop a final few grams of body weight. They then stood on electronic weighing scales which would decide whether their effort had paid off. The process by which wrestlers show they weigh under the limit for their events is a decidedly unglamorous feature of wrestling.

There is none of the usual grumpiness caused by lack of food and dehydration, though. There is plenty of curiosity instead. "Sushil (Kumar) aa gaya (Sushil has come)," murmurs someone and the words spread like a current through the lines of wrestlers waiting for their own turn to step on the scale.

Most of these wrestlers have seen the 34-year-old before but only on TV, very likely at the moment of triumph when he won a bronze medal at the 2008 Olympics or the silver at the 2012 London Games. Sushil hasn't wrestled in India in a very long time. He last competed on home soil at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi. The last time he took part in a domestic tournament was nine years ago at the 2008 Nationals.

Sushil might not have been expected to take part in this competition either. That he did was due to a sequence of events that resulted in Sushil being unable to compete at the 2016 Rio Olympics and a fellow wrestling star, Narsingh Yadav, being banned for a doping offense ahead of the Games.

Narsingh is here too. He is honoured by the local wrestling authorities. But this version of Yadav is a far more subdued figure than the one who once denied Sushil a chance to wrestle for the Olympic quota he had won. He left not long after Sushil arrived.

Sushil is here in a bid to revive his international wrestling career, since the Indian Federation has made it clear that only those who take part in the nationals will be considered for next year's Commonwealth and Asian Games.

And so the horde of wrestlers in a narrow corridor look to spot him. They can't at first glance. There is a phalanx of burly bodyguards making a pathway through the multitude. Behind that guard is an entourage of about eight individuals.And in the centre of it all -- a ship of calm making his way through the sea of excitement - is Sushil himself, with just a hint of a smile on his face.

Recognising another athlete, he stops just for an instant. Amit Dahiya is a trainee at New Delhi's Chhatrasal Akhara just like Sushil - who now heads the academy -- once was. Dahiya, who will compete in the 57 kg freestyle category is a senior wrestler with a silver medal of his own at the World Championships. Yet he leans forward and touches the feet of Sushil, who lifts him and pats him paternally on his cheek.

There is no concern when Sushil strips off his jersey and track pants and, wearing just a jockstrap, steps on the scales. The digital numbers flash 73.5 kg, a half kilogram under the weight limit. Sushil doesn't indulge the scores of selfie requests, but that doesn't stop the flashes from popping off one after the other as he makes his way out of the corridor.

He is greeted by a convoy of four SUVs at the stadium exit. He gets into the Range Rover belonging to a local politician in the middle and the cavalcade drives off to his hotel.

Back at the stadium, the conversation shifts from Sushil's weight to his prospects for the next day's bout. "Sushil agar 125kg pe bhi ladega to jitega (Even if Sushil competes in the 125 kg category, he will win)," says one wrestler from Haryana. This isn't a a statement to hype Sushil's grappling prowess. He simply means Sushil isn't expected to face serious competition the next day.

Competing at the trials to select the Railways team last week, Sushil was given a walkover by junior national champion Dinesh, while his next opponent Parveen Rana didn't even show up. This is part of an accepted practice among Railways wrestlers to let the senior wrestler advance in case they meet each other in the draw. Even at the national championships, Vinesh Phogat -- who won gold in the women's 55kg bout -- got a walkover in the semifinals from Railways teammate Archana.

At the nationals, Sushil's path to gold seems clear. The wrestlers in the draw are either not expected to pose a serious challenge or - as in the case of defending 74 kg national champion Jitender Singh (who will compete in 79 kg category - have chosen to avoid Sushil.

"Mushkil lagta hai ki koi tik payega, Sushil ke khilaf (Seems difficult that someone will be able to compete against Sushil)," is how former men's national coach Kuldeep Malik sums up Sushil's comeback prospect.