A few weeks ago, shortly after Narsingh Yadav was named in the Indian squad for the Individual World Cup in Belgrade, Serbia, his long-time coach Jagmal Singh was asked about his chances there by a reporter. There's no doubt that the news merited a story. While the Individual World Cup marked the resumption of top flight international wrestling after a coronavirus-enforced eight-month hiatus, it would be an even more momentous tournament for Narsingh, who will compete in the preliminary rounds of the 74kg freestyle division on Wednesday. This would be the 31-year-old's first international competition since the 2015 World Championships following a four-year ban for drug offences.
But while Jagmal was obviously eager to speak, Narsingh wasn't keen he do so. "At that time, Narsingh didn't want me to say anything until it actually happened. Not until he entered the stadium in Belgrade and not until he actually stepped on the mat and the referee started the match," says Jagmal. The more he thinks about it, the more coach Jagmal reckons Narsingh wasn't wrong. Not after what he'd gone through.
If it were up to Narsingh, the subject of his inclusion in the Belgrade World Cup squad shouldn't have been anything out of the ordinary. He will argue that his five-year exile from international wrestling was unjustified. However, the details of his suspension are a matter of record. It begins just after his last international competition, the 2015 world championships where he won a bronze medal and earned an Olympic quota. However, he subsequently became embroiled with double Olympic-medallist Sushil Kumar over who would represent India in the 74kg category at the Rio Olympics. It was a bitterly fought and controversial battle that saw Narsingh test positive (under suspicious circumstances) for steroid use just days before the competition. Narsingh continues to believe he was the victim of sabotage, but he received a four-year ban all the same.
There were many moments when Narsingh believed his exile from international wrestling would be cut short only to be disappointed on each occasion. "I remember after four years ago, just before the Rio Olympics, Narsingh still thought he would get a chance to compete. I also did. I was still talking about his chances at the Olympics when we learned he wouldn't be allowed to compete," recalls Jagmal.
The four years in the wilderness have been the toughest of Narsingh's career. He is 31 now, having lost the best years of his career. He's seen sponsors and friends desert him. But he isn't done yet. He continued to train all through his ban. Unable to participate in any official freestyle tournament, he only had the odd mitti dangal (mud wrestling tournament) for any sort of practice.
"The reason I still continued to train even through my ban was because I loved wrestling. There's no greater joy than testing yourself against the best wrestlers." Narsingh Yadav
A bolt of good fortune came earlier this year, when owing to the coronavirus pandemic, the Olympics were postponed by a year, enough time technically for his doping ban to expire. There were further strokes of luck. Although Narsingh - an Asian, commonwealth and world championships medallist - was once India's premier wrestler in the 74kg category, he'd slipped in the pecking order. He'd since been replaced by Sushil and then Jitender Kumar. Both of them would have been the prime contenders to travel to Belgrade. However, neither chose to compete. With no trials being held to name the India squad, Narsingh got picked by default.
Despite the fortuitous series of events, it could be understood why Narsingh remained wary of jinxing his return. Indeed, not long after he was set to return, Narsingh's own chances seemed uncertain as he tested positive - this time for the coronavirus.
Luckily for him, the illness was a mild one and he insists he's completely recovered after taking a few days off. "I was only slightly unwell. I've trained and competed with far more severe illnesses and injuries in the past. In fact, I was training on the day I got the test done. But because I had symptoms I had to get tested. And three days after my test, I returned a negative test. Right now I'm training back at a 100 percent," he says.
As the days ticked closer to his comeback and the chances of it being foiled somehow have grown dimmer, Narsingh's grown more comfortable with the idea of talking about it. Any nervousness he says has been replaced by a sense of excitement. "I'm not worried at all. If anything, I'm really happy to be competing again and getting a chance to test myself. The reason I still continued to train even through my ban was because I loved wrestling. There's no greater joy than testing yourself against the best wrestlers," he says.
The competition in Belgrade isn't any sort of easy warm up for the Indian. While several top teams including the USA, Japan, Georgia, Iran and Kazakhstan are not sending representatives to Serbia, there's no shortage of high level competitors, with the 2019 World silver medallist Frank Chamizo of Italy tipped as the favourite to win.
For Yadav though, just the first minutes after stepping onto the mat will bring its own set of challenges. This isn't to say that Narsingh hasn't done all he could to be ready for his opportunity. He was training at a high intensity all these past years. And when he learned he had another shot, he left his wife and his newly born son at his in-laws' home in order to train undistracted. Physically, his coach insists, he's nearly indistinguishable from the specimen who was a strong prospect to medal at Rio. But, even Narsingh's closest allies will admit just how he performs on the mat is unknown. It isn't a secret that there have been some warning signs. Just a year ago in fact, Narsingh wrestled against a mid-level Iranian wrestler at a dangal in Pune. Coach Jagmal admits that the bout - which Narsingh won - was a lot closer than it would have been a few years back. A five-year break from competition is no small matter.
Narsingh admits it himself. "For four years I haven't competed at any meaningful level. I've not even taken part in inter-police competitions. The only practice I've got is in sparring matches while training and a few dangals. It's only when I compete internationally that I'll know just what I need to get better. Right now, I don't know what the international level is like. I've not left anything wanting in my training but that match experience isn't something that can come back immediately. It takes a few matches for that to return," he says.
Narsingh knows he won't have the matches he needs to find his feet once again at the international level. Come the new year, his competitors - Jitender, Sushil and maybe the youngster Gourav Baliyan (who is competing in the 79kg class at Belgrade) - will be jostling for the right to earn a quota for the Tokyo Olympics. And while it goes against what he requested of his coach a few weeks back, Narsingh can't stop himself dreaming of the possibilities that might await him should he battle the odds and roll back the years in Belgrade. "In my mind I think my level is not changed. But it's true that many years have passed since I competed. In one way, it's a big thing for me just to compete but I also know that if I do well, it will give me a big boost. That's why this is a very important tournament for me," he says.