Both the Indian women’s kabaddi team (in pic) and the men’s side lost to Iran’s teams at the Asian Games 2018 — earning silver and bronze respectively, as their monopoly over the sport came to a crashing halt (Pic: IANS).
From the Pro Kabaddi League’s (PKL’s) role in seasoning Iran’s players, to untimely injuries and weak strategy… many reasons have been listed by the autopsy crew following the Indian kabaddi teams’ losses at the Asian Games.
However, the fault lines go much deeper. Even before they boarded the flight for Jakarta, the teams — men and women — may not have had it in them to come back with the titles considered Indian property ever since the sport’s induction into the Asiad programme (men’s event in 1990 and women’s in 2010). Away from the relative glamour of the much-publicised and widely televised PKL, the present state of administration of the sport in India appears rife with corruption, ranging from bribery for selection to rigged elections and zero accountability. It is only the unprecedented defeats that have allowed this sordid tale to receive attention in the national press.
The story begins just before the Asian Games when two former international players filed a writ petition to the Delhi High Court alleging, with proof, that the men’s and women’s kabaddi teams selected by the Amateur Kabaddi Federation of India (AKFI) did not include the best players in the country. The petitioners, C Honnappa Gowda and S Rajrathanam, presented enough evidence warranting an unprecedented judgement by a bench comprising of Acting Chief Justice Gita Mittal and Justice C Hari Shankar of the Delhi High Court.
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Both India teams (silver medallist women and third-placed men) will face another knockout game in New Delhi when they get back from Indonesia. They will square off against teams made up of players who were “unfairly denied” the opportunity to play at the Asian Games. This contest will be used by the court as further evidence to either validate or negate the petitioners’ claim that the teams chosen to represent India were not best qualified for the roles.
Further, the Court has ordered that neither team is to be awarded for their medal-winning showing until it has pronounced a final verdict on the matter. As per precedent, kabaddi players could have been in line to receive as much as Rs. 1 crore each as cash bonuses (If they had won gold. For the lesser medals the cash is reduced accordingly) in addition to government jobs or promotions. In effect, four India teams will now battle it out for ‘medals’ that have already been presented in Jakarta. The matches will be held in New Delhi next month and videos will be examined by the Court and kabaddi experts at the case’s next hearing on October 30.
With a below par showing at the Asian Games, the writing is already on the wall, though. The men’s team lost to Iran in the semifinals on August 23, while the women followed suit in the final the next day, ending the India’s had on the sport. The men, in fact, had lost to South Korea in the group stage as well — adding insult to injury. As far as records show India have never lost two matches in a major international tournament before these Games.
It is clear that the teams lacked in many areas while the composition, which raised red flags, was indeed weak. Bharat Nagar, the Supreme Court advocate appearing on behalf of the petitioners, said he felt sad the sport and its players are losing out in this whole episode but said it is the only way to begin cleaning up a sport that his side claim is rotten from the top right down to district-level kabaddi associations.
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“The results themselves speak volumes and will act as another big proof in our case against the AKFI and the rampant corruption in its functioning,” he said. “It is not that kabaddi is the only federation that is corrupt. Such things happen in all sporting bodies and I hope this development, and the way the Delhi High Court has taken cognizance of the petition and the judgement, would act as motivation for other sports — be it by former or current players or people involved in them — to come out and fight to make things right.”
The opposition teams for the trial matches will be picked by a panel of three selectors — to be appointed by the sports secretary (Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports) — while the whole process will be overseen by District Judge (retd.) Ravinder Kaur.
However, it is a sad fact that the two Indian teams have already lost their real test — at the Asian Games. And the trial matches, though serving a good purpose, would be a reminder that they failed the whole nation and not just themselves, said former Kabaddi international Sanjeev Thakur. He added that the need of the hour is to clean up the system so that all the talented players receive the platform they deserve and that would ensure India remain the gold standard in world kabaddi.
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“A loss on the international stage is not just the loss of the team or the people involved in the sport. It is a collective loss of the nation,” added Thakur, whose international career spanned through the 1990s.
“The trial matches would reiterate this, no doubt, but what needs to be done now is to ensure that we don’t take anything for granted,” said Thakur. “The world is catching up with us in kabaddi and in this instance I am reminded of India and hockey and how the world has left us behind. There is a chance that it will happen in kabaddi too but we should not let that happen. The only way we can do that is by ensuring that the best players are promoted and get a chance to represent the country at the highest levels.”
Mahipal Singh, former international and Arjuna awardee, echoed Thakur’s sentiments. Mahipal had also filed a case against the federation, fighting what he termed as a “racket” that fixes not just selections but also furbishes fake certificates for people in return for money.
“The loss has highlighted what we have been saying all along. This is what happens when you take money and select players who are below par to face tough opposition. And Iran exposed them at the Asian Games,” he said.
On the court in Jakarta, there were enough signs in various passages of play in the two knockout losses to indicate the supremacy opponents Iran had over India. Is it a sign that the world is catching up with India, with Iran being the fastest among the sides, or a clear case of weak links in the Indian line-up magnifying the quality of the opponents, resulting in the losses?
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Mahipal, clearly angry, didn’t mince words and said everything in the team was weak. “Starting with the captain Ajay Thakur. He was the weakest link, didn’t you see that clearly in the match?”
India’s fortunes did hinge around their skipper through the tournament. But he cut his forehead in the second half against Iran and was off colour through the game.
Sanjeev Thakur, meanwhile, found the fault in defense, pointing out that modern kabaddi is not just about raiders.
“Raiders win points, no doubt, and are the stars. But, in kabaddi, more points are earned by a solid defense,” he elaborated. “Coordination among players is key too, and the players selected lacked that while the defensive line was weak because they overlooked the best.” This was highlighted in the Iran-India semifinal, where the Iranians earned a majority of their points through the ‘Super Tackle’.
India went to Jakarta with just three defenders — Girish Maruti Ernak (left corner), Mohit Chhillar (right corner) and Raju Lal Choudhary (right corner). It was clear that the Indians were banking on all-rounders and went into the Asian Games without a pure cover defender.
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One of India’s defensive mainstays, cover defender Surjeet Singh, was dropped, and experts say, he is irreplaceable and the best in the business now. Another big exclusion was left corner Surender Nada. Both Nada and Surjeet had no injuries. Meanwhile, Choudhary, and all-rounder Gangadhari Mallesh, were not exactly in the reckoning for a national call-up but they made it to the Asiad roster.
In the women’s squad, the exclusions were even more in your face. Abhilasha Mhatre, who led the side at the Asian Kabaddi Championships in Iran last November, was not selected. There were six new faces in the team — Sonali Shingate, Sayali Keripale, Shalini Pathak, Usha Rani Narsimhala and Madhu.
“Many deserving youngsters were left out of the women’s squad,” said Thakur. “Of course experience in the team matters. But we need players who are in their prime too.”
The lack of speed and subtle weaknesses are magnified when a team plays well-prepared, talented and motivated opposition. Iran exposed India’s weaknesses definitively.The feeling among experts is that the trial matches in September will be equally damning.
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The argument hinges on the current state of Kabaddi's evolution, and global expansion. The experts we spoke to did not agree that other nations have already eclipsed India. The sport has developed and grown here and the player base is many times the size of what Iran and Korea have to choose from. Iranians who have played in India have unequivocally stated that the level of competitiveness in Indian kabaddi is far higher than anywhere else. They have also credited playing under Indian coaches, and among mostly Indian players, with the development of their skills from tactical and mental points of view. So, while the Iranians must be credited for executing a flawless gameplan, in India questions centre on the composition of the team put out by the AKFI in the first place.
What Mahipal or petitioners Gowda and Rajrathanam and their lawyer Nagar are trying to achieve goes well beyond the scope of these Asian Games and the bizarre post-event “trial matches.” The situation warranted it as the AKFI, expecting intervention from the Court, announced the team in a hurry on July 7, though they had initially planned post for July 15, after the final camp started. Then, once the Court ruled in favour of a fair selection, the AKFI presented a concern through the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) that the entries have been sent and any changes could jeopardise the teams' participation.
It is evident that the AKFI tinkered with timing of the selections, and willfully manipulated deadlines. The federation tried to be smart, the Court seems to have outsmarted them.
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Meanwhile, the Delhi High Court, in another judgement, removed Mridul Bhadauria Gehlot as president of the AKFI, citing the invalidity of her election. Mridul is the wife of Janardan Singh Gehlot, president of the International Kabaddi Federation who was also at the helm of AKFI for 28 years before he was also removed as life president. Janadhar Singh, a former Congress minister in Rajasthan, switched to BJP in 2008 after being denied a ticket. The Court then appointed Sanat Kaul, a retired IPS Officer, interim administrator of the AKFI. Kaul promptly had the offices of the AKFI office in Jaipur, situated at the Gehlots’ residence, sealed.
Fresh elections are to be held within six months and the AKFI has been directed to provide Kaul with logistics and personnel support to facilitate his role as AKFI administrator.
The Gehlots’ control over the sport is so complete that the petitioners are arguing for a revamp of the entire structure of the federation. “The correct course would be to ensure not just a free and fair election but also a revamp of the entire electoral college,” says Nagar. “I say this because corruption starts right from the grassroots, from the taluk or district level, right up to the national federation, and the voting process will only be fair if the right people are placed at all levels.”
This is just the beginning, insisted advocate Nagar — the loss and the trial matches, the court case that would follow, and the subsequent elections, seem to be the likely script in this drama. But things aren’t that simple when it comes to sports administration.
The Indian Olympic Association (IOA) and the Sports Ministry will come into the picture. The motives of the petitioners and the jurisdiction of the Court will also likely be questioned on grounds of judicial and governmental interference in the functioning of sports bodies—a big no-no as per the Olympic Charter which could attract sanctions or even a ban from the world body governing the sport.
It’s a murky path, and it will take time for things to clear up. Kabaddi’s troubles, meanwhile, are at their peak. The bitterness of the losses at the Asian Games have left an aftertaste that the glitz of the Pro Kabaddi League may not be enough to wash away. The presence of Iran’s best male players in that league will rub salt in the wounded egos of India’s kabaddi firmament. Once again Indian sport’s administrators have given fans plenty of evidence that fact is often far stranger than fiction.