Coming off a nine-month enforced break, things were always expected to be difficult for the Indian wrestling team that competed at the 2020 Individual Wrestling World Cup. The contingent had headed to Belgrade, Serbia, on the back of interrupted training and the level of preparation showed in the nature of results. Although the tournament featured a depleted field owing to the absence of heavyweights USA, Japan, China, Kazakhstan and Cuba, India only won a solitary medal -- a silver to Anshu Malik in the women's 57kg division. While inadequate training and limited sparring resulted in a disappointing result, the performance could also serve as a wake-up call heading into the critical 2021 season.
Here are the takeaways from the event:
India won only 15 bouts over the course of the competition, while losing 28. Three of India's medallists at the 2019 World Championships who competed in Serbia won just three bouts between them. World silver medallist Deepak Punia was beaten in the bronze-medal playoffs by 34-year old Piotr Ianulov of Moldovia, who finished 15th in last year's worlds. Rahul Aware lost in the second-round match while Ravi Dahiya, a bronze medal winner at Nur Sultan last year, was pinned by Gamzatgadzsi Halidov of Hungary, who progressed from the junior division just this year. Rio Olympic bronze medallist Sakshi Malik's long-term loss of form continued too as she lost in the first round of the non-Olympic 65kg division.
Indian wrestlers will admit their preparation for the World Cup was inadequate. Because of the nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, even individual training was limited between the months of March and August. A national camp was only called on September 1. Following a week's break for Diwali, the women's camp was called off entirely and the wrestlers were training at their respective home centres. The camps were conducted amid severe restrictions. Only Indian coaches were part of the camp since the women's foreign coach Andrew Cook had had his contract terminated in the midst of the lockdown, while the foreign coaches attached to the men's team were not able to travel to India. With such limited time to train, it wasn't a surprise that several Indian wrestlers, notably world medallists Bajrang Punia and Vinesh Phogat, opted to skip the tournament.
Lack of sparring
The need to be cautious in the atmosphere of a pandemic was understandable. As a contact sport, wrestlers are particularly susceptible to contracting the virus and six athletes who were part of the national camp would eventually test positive for the coronavirus. This meant that only a limited number of wrestlers (26 men and 15 women) were called to the national camp. Even for the wrestlers who eventually had to train at their individual academies, this meant there was no access to high-level competitors to train against. The fact that the Indian team was travelling to Belgrade without any sort of warm-up competition -- even inside the national camps -- meant they would be rusty especially in their first couple of bouts, which is where most wrestlers were ousted.
"We have been training hard but unless you actually compete against an opponent, you don't have an idea of just what area you are lacking in," Deepak told ESPN prior to the team's departure.
What has the team gained from the World Cup?
While the fact that the team returned with just a single medal from the World Cup was disappointing, most wrestlers had said prior to the team's departure that they were heading to Belgrade without many expectations. "The most important part of competing is you know where you stand," Dahiya said. "You learn which areas you need to work on. When you are coming off such a long break, you lose a lot of match practice. You need to get that back. That is the most important thing we will get from the World Cup," he said.
The competition was particularly crucial for wrestlers who are yet to qualify for the Olympics. While the 2021 season will start with competitions in the month of January, the Olympic qualifiers are just three months away.
What could be done?
Instead of heading to the World Cup, three-time world medallist Bajrang opted to participate in a month-long training stint at the University of Michigan in the U.S. before taking part in two competitions - an eight-man prize-money event in Austin on Friday and a one-off event against top U.S. contender Zain Retherford, scheduled for December 22. That decision proved to be a better way to shake off the rust than simply heading to a competition. Punia was training alongside some of the U.S.' top collegiate talent and that clearly helped based on his results at the eight-man tournament, which he won, beating two-time world medallist James Green in the final.
A couple of other wrestlers are now also weighing the option of training abroad. "I'll decide after the World Cup on what is the right way to train. I might decide to train abroad because right now I don't have many good sparring partners in India," Dahiya said prior to his departure.