A month after he returned to active competition at the national championships, Sushil Kumar will compete in his first international competition on Sunday at the Commonwealth Championships in Johannesburg, South Africa, where he will compete in the 74kg freestyle category.
Sushil, a two-time Olympic medallist, had won gold at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. After failing to qualify for the 2016 Olympics amid controversy, he had not participated in an active competition until the Nationals in November.
Despite his long layoff, expectations must be high for the Indian wrestler. The Commonwealth Championships is one of the weakest tournaments on the international wrestling calendar. In the Greco-Roman category on Friday, Indian wrestlers won gold and silver in each category. Every gold in the women's category was also won by an Indian. Sushil himself has a near-perfect record at the Commonwealth Championships. He has won three gold medals in this particular competition and also has a bronze medal from when he also contested in the Greco-Roman category in 2005.
With only five participants in the bracket, the 74kg freestyle division in Johannesburg will likely be contested in the form of a round-robin contest. India's Parveen Rana, Jasmit Phulka of Canada, Akash Khullar of New Zealand and Johannes Botha of South Africa will also be competing in Sushil's category. None of his rivals has anything close to the pedigree Sushil brings to the competition. Among them, only Rana has ever even competed at a World Championships.
While the Commonwealth Championships are a relatively easy stepping stone, it is an important one for Sushil. The competition will be one of several Sushil plans to take part in as he ramps up his preparation for the 2018 Commonwealth Games.
The burst of activity is partly due to a reason to silence doubters. Once considered a certainty to wrestle for the country, Sushil skipped the 2015 Wrestling World Championships, where Narsingh Yadav won the Olympic quota. Sushil's request to have a trial with Narsingh to determine the Olympic spot was dismissed. One of the reasons had been his inactivity, a charge Sushil now wants to avoid.
A gold at the National Championships didn't do all that much to cement his claim to being the best in the country. The medal had been won in less-than-ideal circumstances as only two competitors wrestled him on the day, with three others conceding the match. The wrestlers, including incidentally Rana, had said they had done so out of respect, and Sushil said he had been willing to fight anyone, but it did little to allay the opinion that the competition had been reduced to a farce.
When he does get onto the mat on Sunday, India's most decorated wrestler must hope his performance will be judged on its own merit and not carry the whiff of controversy his last medal did.