As the Indian men's kabaddi team returned without a gold medal from the Asian Games for the first time since 1990, there was one question that lingered in the minds of their fans: What went wrong?
Did the undisputed champions take their dominance for granted or did the team selection go wrong? So what exactly happened?
We take a look at the factors that led to the upset.
Defence gone wrong
India have a very strong team when it comes to kabaddi. But not having prominent names like Surender Nada and Surjeet Singh - who have impressed in almost every single season at the Pro Kabaddi League and at the 2016 World Cup - in the defence was odd. Yes, they gave a chance to newcomers like Raju Lal Chaudhary, who did well in a few matches, but was this the time to experiment? Wasn't this the time to put their best team forward? Mohit Chhillar, their right corner, struggled in defence since the very first match against Bangladesh - a sign that the team ignored, or had to ignore, majorly because they didn't have stronger back-ups.
Over-reliance on Ajay Thakur
Talking of not having back-ups, the other problem that the team faced was the over-reliance on World Cup hero and captain Ajay Thakur. Back in 2016, as India trailed against Iran at half-time, it was Thakur who almost miraculously staged an epic comeback, making super raid after super raid to help India win. This time, he got injured at the beginning of the second half. The team didn't see that coming - and as a result, Thakur's injury showed them up as well.
The team had the big names - Rahul Chaudhari, Pardeep Narwal, Monu Goyat and the likes. But what they lacked was experience. These players do well in the Pro Kabaddi League, but on the international level, they are yet to get a grip on their skills. Take the World Cup and the recently held Kabaddi Masters in Dubai for example, where none of these players did as well as they do in the PKL. What the team needed was a balance between youth and experience. If ex-captain Anup Kumar was retained, he could've helped with the raids and would have also brought much-needed calm and composure. So could've Manjeet Chhillar. But where were they?
Lack of international tournaments
What PKL has done over the years is to make kabaddi popular in other countries. And with popularity also comes seriousness. So newer countries like South Korea are shining and experienced countries like Iran are strengthening their field. Many of these players, while working with and under Indian players, know their basic tactics by now. So they strategized with their teams accordingly. In India's case, however, that was not what happened. At the Kabaddi Masters, the first international-level tournament after the World Cup, they were met by the B-teams of both South Korea and Iran, against whom they won comfortably. So they couldn't have anticipated the level of growth either of the teams had achieved since 2016.
The beginning of the end?
Is India's dominance over? No. They still have a solid team, but they need to work on the right combinations. It's high time they realise that there is competition now, and the field will only get stronger from here. They need to strategise more, come up with alternatives and back-ups instead of following a set pattern. They've been dominating the game since ages and while it must be hard for them to see anyone else going above them, they need to understand that increased level of competition is not just good for the game, but it also comes with a chance for them to evolve - something they haven't had to do in a very long time.