Indian kabaddi team was slugglish against South Korea in their Asian Games 2018 group match, maybe because of the fatigue of playing three matches in 24 hours, including a win vs Sri Lanka (in picture) on August 19 (Pic: Screen grab SonyLiv).
The inevitable has happened. India have been beaten in kabaddi at the Asian Games.
A result so extraordinary that it is worth repeating. The Indian men’s kabaddi team lost their third group game against South Korea 24-23 on August 20. Two days into Jakarta Palenbang 2018, we have, arguably, the biggest shock result in Asian Games history!
It is tough to say ‘this was coming’, but with a professional league opening up avenues for foreign players to gain access to the previously secretive kabaddi culture in India, and the overall standard of the world game improving leaps and bounds, this was coming. And yet, there is no need to read much into this loss, other than the usual way a team and its fans read a loss -- there were moments when India were clearly second best, and reducing those moments will be key to retaining the title.
Indians were clearly sluggish in the opening half of the game -- a situation brought on perhaps by the fact that they have played three matches in the last 24 hours (they beat Bangladesh 50-21 and Sri Lanka 44-28 on August 19). Disregarding that may be foolhardy. Especially considering the enormous physical toll the sport takes on the players. Perhaps, with an eye on this, captain Ajay Thakur sat out a major part of the second half, and reduced India’s raiding options to the slightly off-colour Pardeep Narhwal.
The result is huge in the larger context of the Games itself.
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Korea are not known for their Kabaddi prowess. They started playing the sport only eight years ago (their first appearance at the Asian Games) and landed their first medal (a bronze) in the previous edition in Incheon. In June this year, they were beaten by India in the six-nations Kabaddi Masters in Dubai. A victory of this magnitude shatters the glass ceiling, not just when it comes to India’s invincibility in the sport, but also Korea’s own insecurities about their abilities. The game is truly on.
A loss to Korea carries its own history for India. This is the team after all which beat India in the opening game of the 2016 World Cup in Ahmedabad, a result that sent shockwaves across the sport’s spectrum. India did bounce back from the loss, set their compass straight and romped to the title in style. Korea settled for bronze in that tournament. All of this because of the missing link in this tri-nation rivalry, and one that could still come to define India’s future at the Asian Games -- Iran.
Traditional rivals Iran have kicked off their group campaign with a flyer, beating Japan 55-20 in the opener, and brushing aside Pakistan in the second match. They will go through their group easily -- and perhaps even stay unbeaten on their way to the semifinals. And herein lies the drama.
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At the World Cup, once India lost their opener, the draw opened up in a way where the hosts would end up meeting Iran in the semis -- unless Iran dropped a game. Perhaps, taking that into account, the Iranians lost against Poland (a result which in itself is objectively speaking a big shock in Kabaddi history) thereby finishing second in the group behind Thailand and setting themselves up for a semifinal with Korea.
Now though, the context has changed. India as hosts, at the time of the World Cup, may have been a more formidable opponent than Iran were probably ready to take on in the semis. In Jakarta, India seem lacklustre, and Iran look formidable.
It is tough to see any other teams in contention for a medal at the Games. Korea, Iran and India (barring another shocker against Thailand) will make the semifinals. The question now boils down to, who plays who and how.
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If it is Iran in the semis, then the Indians will have to play significantly better than they did against the Koreans, and their defence (a matter of discussion even against Sri Lanka) will need to take a long hard look at themselves. In the off chance that Iran throw it away, and India meet a fourth team (Pakistan look likeliest), they will walk in knowing that they are now beatable -- not just figuratively, but quite literally.
As shocking as it may be, at the very least, it will open up everyone’s eyes to the sport at the Games. And also give a fair indication of the way the sport has evolved. Pushovers don’t exist. And on this evidence, neither do favourites.