On the wrong foot

Priyansh | Updated on August 31, 2018 Published on August 31, 2018

Bad run: Before losing to Iran in the semifinals, the Indian men’s team had lost to South Korea in the round-robin stage   -  PTI

The loss Indian men and women suffered in kabaddi at the Asian Games bares cracks that run deep

Fears of a weakened Indian hegemony in kabaddi first surfaced 25 years ago. A loss to Pakistan in the 1993 South Asian Federation games in Dhaka invited exaggerated hand-wringing, like any defeat to the neighbour usually does. If kabaddi was not going to be India’s sport any more, what would be left of the country’s already small foothold in the world of sport?

For a nation which fails more often than it succeeds in the sporting arena, kabaddi has been a beacon of certainty. Cricket does not come close to the dominance India enjoys in kabaddi. Hence, the many furrowed brows when Iran bested both the Indian men and women’s teams at the Asian Games in Indonesia last week. Year 1993 may have been a false alarm, but the present power shift is real.

The Iranian team has grown in stature over the past decade. At the Asian Games in Incheon four years ago, the difference between the Indian men’s team and the Iranians was a mere two points.

Four years on, Iran has turned it into a comprehensive victory. The influence of the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL) in the Indian context is widely analysed. But the semi-final between India and Iran showed that India alone has not gained from the experience.

Iran’s Fazel Atrachali and Abozar Mighani had proved their mettle when they guided Gujarat Fortune Giants to a spot in the PKL final last season. But in Indonesia, in the company of their lesser-known teammates, part-time wrestlers Atrachali and Mighani executed five ‘super’ tackles to stun India.

Atrachali, the first player to command a fee of ₹1 crore earlier this year at the PKL auction, has always been a threat.

In fact, the Indian team had this coming. The men had lost to South Korea — a team coached by India’s Ashan Kumar, who previously had been in-charge of Iran — in the round-robin stage. Indian kabaddi coaches have always been in demand across the world, but the situation is vastly different from what it was 40 years ago. Back in 1978, only Bangladesh and Nepal took up India’s invitation to set up the Asian Amateur Kabaddi Federation. The sport enjoys a wider reach now.

Further, the Asian Games defeat has bared the cracks within Indian kabaddi. Coach Ram Mehar Singh blamed his injured captain Ajay Thakur’s “overconfidence”, while lamenting that the forwards did not do their job. Though Thakur’s mid-game injury, which left him with stitches on the forehead, proved to be a distraction, the fact remains that the Iranians completely outplayed the Indians.

If that was not insult enough, a day later, the women’s team also lost to Iran. The sexagenarian coach from India, Shailaja Jain, dented her country’s shot at the gold when she got the Iranian players to target the tactically exposed Indian defence on the right flank.

The men’s team, though, may not have lost had it valued Jain’s opinion. Or so she told The Indian Express: “If they had asked nicely, I might have even helped the Indian men’s team with insights into the Iranian opponents they lost to yesterday. But their attitude makes me feel like I am a criminal for coaching outside,” said Jain.

Hyper-nationalist attitudes abound in sport. But it is Jain’s inputs about malpractices in selection that will now assume greater importance. On September 15, both the men and the women’s squads will have a face-off against players who failed to make it to Indonesia. The decision to hold this match was taken after a PIL was filed by former players led by Mahipal Singh who alleged favouritism in selection. The Delhi High Court subsequently ordered Amateur Kabaddi Federation of India’s (AKFI) ‘Life President’ Janardhan Singh Gehlot and his wife Mridul, the erstwhile president, to vacate their positions.

The ruling came a year after an alternative body — New Kabaddi Federation of India (NKFI) — was incepted by former players to challenge the existing order at AKFI. NKFI accused Gehlot, who jumped ship from the Congress to the Bharatiya Janata Party a couple of years ago, of running AKFI as his personal fiefdom, promoting his wife and son when he could no longer continue his more than two-decade-long tenure as president. Retired bureaucrat Sanat Kaul is in charge of the AKFI for now. With the game on, the Thyagaraj Sports Complex in New Delhi will be the stage for high drama when the issue of selection malpractice will be resolved in an unusual fashion. The Delhi HC had refused to hold back the chosen squad before the Asian Games since there was little time for contingency plans. Three selectors named by the ministry for youth affairs and sports will adjudicate the match.

It is not the first time that kabaddi finds itself in such a predicament. Just before the 1998 Asian Games in Bangkok, a split in the AKFI saw six players each from the two power camps selected as a compromise. The team, however, returned with gold, and experts maintain that, controversies aside, the selected squad should have maintained the record.

Whatever be the outcome of the trial match, it is not just Indian kabaddi’s supremacy which is at stake; its grace too is on the line.

Priyansh is an independent writer based in New Delhi

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Published on August 31, 2018
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