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Hold your breath for Gold

The men’s and women’s kabaddi teams are confident of continuing their winning streak19 Aug 2018 | 12:05 AM[ + read story ]

Vinayak Padmadeo

How often have Indian coaches and others been confident of winning medals at an international event but stopped short of predicting its colour? Given the tough competition and unpredictable performances of Indian sportspersons, a medal is never a certainty.

However, kabaddi players and coaches operate at a different level than the rest. Call it arrogance or confidence, the kabaddi players are making bold claims of winning the gold medal yet again. The men’s team is in the running for its eighth consecutive gold medal, while the women’s team is raring to complete a hat-trick at the 2018 Asian Games. The team won its first gold in the 2010 Guangzhou Games when women’s kabaddi was first introduced. 

The kabaddi revolution started at the 1990 Asian Games, where the team won India’s only gold medal. Some of the men who started the unbeaten run are still associated with the game. Recalling those early days, they talk about the camps that were invariably held at the Netaji Subhas National Institute of Sports (NSNIS), Patiala. In the 1990s, the team used to be at the mercy of the officialdom. If the powers that be in the federation or in the Sports Authority of India (SAI) took pity, then camps would be shifted to Shilaroo or Bengaluru. “The change of the venue was equivalent to an exposure trip for us then,” says Rambir Singh Khokar, who is the chief coach of the men’s team.

Stars of the 1990s

In 1990, the first team was led by Punjab’s Hardeep Singh and was housed in Patiala. The facilities were sparse. Unlike today, there were no mats or mat shoes or a dietician or a masseur, who are an integral part of teams nowadays. Hardeep wasn’t the first choice to lead the team. The majority of the team had voted for Randhir Singh but the team manager, Jasbir Singh, was stopped minutes before he made the formal announcement. Randhir backed Hardeep as he was his senior by one year in the squad.

The mess attendant at the camp was their ‘dietician’, one who did not care about any complaint. “There would hardly be any paneer in mattar-paneer they served us. The mess guys would say ‘Khana hai to khao, warna jao’,” recalls Randhir, who now coaches Bengaluru Bulls in Pro Kabaddi League. 

However, this lackadaisical attitude changed once the team returned with the gold medal from China. “When we won the lone gold we became the centre of attention,” says Randhir.

“More than 5,000 persons had gathered from the surrounding villages of Delhi and Haryana to welcome us when we arrived at the Palam airport. There were no TV crews then so it is not that well documented, but we were surprised to see the crowd,” he adds. Several members of the 1990 team, including Randhir, went on to win Arjuna Awards and other honours in the subsequent years. Coach Prasad Rao, too, was awarded the Dronacharya Award. 

Long wait for women

While the 1990 gold turned the men into stars overnight, the women players had to wait a lot longer to get glory at the world stage.

“We used to have camps every year but we didn’t get to play in any international match,” recalls Banani Saha, a former player and now part of the coaching staff of the women’s team. “We would envy the boys’ team. They went on exposure trips, would participate in the South Asian Games (SAF) or the Asian Championships while we were stuck attending camps only,” says Saha.

Saha never got a chance to wear the India jersey and retired in 2006. The same year, Indian girls made their international debut. 

Just like men who rode on the success of the 1990 triumph and later reaped benefits through Pro Kabaddi League, the women are enjoying the perks of stardom.

Rags-to-riches fairytales

Sonali Shingate is one of the youngest players in the women’s team. Her father works as a private security guard in Mumbai’s Arthur Road area. The family stays in a small rented house in Lower Parel. The 2018 Games will be the first international tournament for this 23-year-old. The talented player has already gained employment with the Western Railways.  

The team captain, Payel Chowdhury, has a somewhat similar story. A budding athlete, she had won the bronze in the high jump at the National Championships in 2006 in Kolkata. She was included in her school’s kabaddi team because she could run.

Chowdhury was not part of the team for the 2014 Games. “I was dropped from the squad. I was obviously disappointed but then I used the setback to improve myself. I am confident that we will win gold again,” claims Chowdhury in an assured manner.

Unlike earlier teams that didn’t get many facilities or exposure tours, things are easier for the present team. Recently, a team from Iran was here for an invitational tournament at Jaipur where the Indian team’s video analyst recorded all the matches.

“We studied the tapes later. We are aware of their weak points and have a strategy in place to stop them,” says Saha. Iran had finished runners-up to India at the Incheon Games.

Just like their male counterparts, Chowdhury and Shingate, as well as other team members, are confident of winning the gold. But they are nervous, too. “I don’t know what will happen there, but I will try to give my best,” says Shingate of her impending debut.

Chowdhury simply repeats what the men’s team has been saying. “This team is young and talented and there is no reason for us not to win the gold, yet again,” she adds with confidence.

The best of the lot

The coach of the men’s team, Khokar, terms his boys as the best ever, better than the trailblazers of the 1990s and others who followed them. “That time our only competition was with Pakistan. Now there are Iran and South Korea as well and these three can give us a tough fight. But this present team will not allow anyone to beat them,” he said.

“My confidence stems from the fact that under the captaincy of raider Ajay Thakur we have a well-disciplined squad, including all-rounders, defenders and raiders and I can predict gold medal number eight for us,” he says.

Captain Thakur is all praise for the SAI facility at Sonepat. “The indoor hall here is air-conditioned, which is a big help in having extended training sessions. If we would train for just one hour in the open, in the AC environs we could easily extend our sessions to two or two and half hours. You will see the difference on the mat,” says a buoyant captain who is sure of his boys. 

Men's team:  Girish Maruti Ernak, Deepak Niwas Hooda, Mohit Chhillar, Sandeep Narwal, Pardeep Narwal, Rishank Devadiga, Monu Goyat, Ajay Thakur (captain), Rohit Kumar, Raju Lal Choudhary, Mallesh Gangadhari, Rahul Chaudhari. Standby: Amit Nagar, Maninder Singh

Women's team: Sakshi Kumari, Kavita Devi, Priyanka, Manpreet Kaur, Payel Chowdhury (captain), Ritu Negi, Sonali Vishnu Shingate, Sayali Sanjay KeriPale, Randeep Kaur Khehra, Shalini Pathak, Usha Rani Narasimhalah, Madhu. Standby: Priyanka, Shama Parveen.

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