In one of the biggest upsets in Asian Games history, Iran beat India 27-18 in the men's kabaddi semi-final on Thursday. This is only India's second ever defeat in the history of the competition and the first time they have failed to make the final. India's previous defeat had come only on Monday, when they lost to 23-24 Korea in the group stages.
"This is the saddest day for Indian kabaddi from where we had started out in 1990. The unfortunate thing is that kabaddi has grown but India has gone on a downward spiral in the sport. We have to look into the reasons. I wouldn't blame PKL (Pro Kabaddi League) so much. For the growth of the sport, PKL is important. Our players have grown majorly and earned a lot from it, but the problem is that they are living in a dreamland where they believe that they are the best in the world," said former player and Arjuna awardee Raju Bhavsar.
The final was a close affair right from the start, with the teams tied at 9-9 at half-time, and Iran deploying their defence to devastating effect in the early exchanges by pulling off two super tackles inside the first 20 minutes.
Indian raiders Ajay Thakur and Monu Goyat were just beginning to find their feet in the early moments of the second half, when one of the super tackles executed by Iran while trailing 11-9 left Thakur with a cut around his eye, which required immediate medical attention. Iran reclaimed the lead at 12-11, and from there on they kept pulling away. At 16-12, India and Iran exchanged a couple of touch points, with the Iranians effectively pegging away at the number of Indians on the mat. With less than five minutes to go, Rahul Chaudhari tried to redress the balance of the match, but conceded a touch point and an all-out in the process, putting Iran 24-14 ahead.
"The morale of the team was clearly down. There was no visible team co-ordination. I also think the team could not handle the pressure. It didn't look like we came into the match with any homework done or strategy in place. It was the same against Korea too. On the contrary, Iran seemed to have analysed each of our raiders thoroughly and knew exactly where and how to tackle them," former player Ashok Shinde said.
Iran were silver medallists in 2014 Incheon and 2010 Guangzhou, while they also claimed second place in the 2016 World Cup, losing to India 38-29. They will face South Korea in the final on Friday.
"There was a sense of overconfidence in the Indian team which shouldn't have been the case since we had just lost to Korea. We should have played more matches/friendlies against teams like Iran and Korea. Because of PKL, stats, videos and data on all our players are readily and exhaustively available, but we know very little of players from teams like Korea or Iran, apart from the ones who play in PKL. Today it looked more like we were playing a PKL game rather than a national team coming together to win a gold," Shinde added.
Shinde said Thakur's injury also played a part. "Ajay Thakur's injury may have had some kind of an effect. He seemed to be on his own though, he received little support from teammates in both raiding and cover,"
Rakesh Kumar, part of India's 2006 and 2010 Asian Games gold-winning team questioned the planning and team selection. "Team combination was the first major issue. We had no one in cover positions. Players like Surjeet (Singh), Manjeet (Chillar) should have been fielded. None of our star raiders, be it Ajay (Thakur), Pardeep (Narwal) or Rohit (Kumar), could deliver even a fraction of what their stature demanded. Raiders are the guys who've won us points and matches through all the previous years. This time it was a major disappointment. Planning was the second problem. Both their corners were good, but their cover was weaker than ours and we should have capitalized on that. Our raiders should have played cover to corner, which would have got us points. We just didn't apply our mind in the Super Tackle. All of them, Ajay, Pardeep, Monu (Goyat) were all caught near the centre-line. We just allowed them to block our players from the front and then overpower them. Clearly, neither the coach nor the players knew what they were doing," Kumar said.