Ask die-hard Indian kabaddi fans about the events of August 23, 2018, and there will be collective amnesia. India, a gold medallist at the Asian Games since the sport’s induction, fell to a stunning 18-27 loss to archrival Iran in the semifinal in Jakarta. The players were shell-shocked; the Indian fans, whose boisterous cheers reverberated through the Garuda Hall in the Indonesian capital until about the 30-minute mark, had tears in their eyes.

Ajay Thakur, the Indian skipper, had a cut on his right eyebrow from a tackle earlier in the game. Once the final whistle blew, one could see him on the bench with his teammates and coaches convincing him to come away, but he just sat there, almost numb, with the blood stains on his shirt drying up as the minutes passed. In the days to come, the squad, no matter its legacy, would be torn apart. After seven consecutive golds, the honours board and the podium top step was cleared for Iran.

The Asian Games is here once more and Indian kabaddi is waiting for revenge, a five-year itch that’s shaped the skills and sensibilities of a whole new generation of players. But is Iran still the same bogey team?

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Playing catch up

The image of that Indian squad sulking on the dais with the bronze medal reinforced the nation’s faith and reliance on its basics. India’s domestic kabaddi structure is second to none. Public sector undertakings, arms of the military and states make up a busy calendar at the age group and senior levels. What sets India apart is also a flourishing franchise set up, with the ProKabaddi League (PKL) heading into its 10th edition this year. PKL has been an attractive financial and competitive option for some of the best kabaddi players from other countries, including the Iranians.

So much so, blame was also pinned on the league after the defeat in the 2018 Asian Games for opening up the Indian set-up and blunting the dagger. The Indian hand in Iran’s rise in kabaddi goes beyond the PKL.

“Our success in the Asian Games and that gold medal is all thanks to the PKL because the tournament gave us more exposure and experience. Ashan Kumar [India’s current head coach] was our coach before and helped us believe that we could do well in major competitions. We have played with the best talent from Iran and India,” Iran defender Abozar Mohajermighani (in pic), one of the architects of India’s fall, told The Hindu.

Unlike India, Iran does not have the system to back the talent that is challenging hegemonies at the world level.

“Iran has only one league and it goes on for just two or three months. After that, if any tournament happens for the national team, we have a camp. Otherwise, we end up waiting for the next league. Iran players always do something else — be it football or bodybuilding,” Abozar explained.

“In kabaddi, fitness is important as you have contact all the time. If you’re not fit, after one attack, you’ll get injured. Frankly, I know that India’s skills are far superior when compared to Iran’s. So fitness is one way for us to even the scales at a level like this,” said Iran head coach Gholamreza Mazandarani.

Gold medallists Iran celebrate during the victory ceremony of the men's team kabaddi event at the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta on August 24, 2018. (Photo by CHAIDEER MAHYUDDIN / AFP)        (Photo credit should read CHAIDEER MAHYUDDIN/AFP via Getty Images)

Gold medallists Iran celebrate during the victory ceremony of the men’s team kabaddi event at the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta on August 24, 2018. (Photo by CHAIDEER MAHYUDDIN / AFP) (Photo credit should read CHAIDEER MAHYUDDIN/AFP via Getty Images)
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Gholamreza is a tough taskmaster but an innovative one. His drills for the boys this time around have involved uphill treks and swims in the Caspian Sea alongside creative games during endurance and resistance training. Travelling to different terrains also comes with bonfires and barbecues where the squad bonds by cooking meals, dining and cleaning up. The idea is to allow the players to find a rhythm off the mat, too.

“Our practice is a little different from what India does. I think the Indian coaching gig is a lot easier than our job here in Iran. In India, I am sure players only need some strategy and tactical advice. But for the rest of us, we need to work on everything — fitness, skills and temperament. Every day, a chunk of our time goes in analysis, looking at the players’ strengths and weaknesses, where they might fall short against their opponents and how they can improve,” Gholamreza explained.

Iran had an opportunity to give its talent pool a dress rehearsal of the demands of the Asian Games at the Asian kabaddi championships in Busan. Gholamreza took a young squad without seniors like Fazel Atrachali and Mohammad Esmaeil Nabibakhsh, much like what the side did in the Dubai kabaddi masters before the 2018 Jakarta Asian Games. When Fazel was missing even from visuals coming from the camp, doubts emerged about whether Iran was looking past the tactical genius of the 31-year-old.

“I don’t focus on the name. Name, experience and legacy doesn’t matter. I only look at the present and what they are capable of doing now. For me, only the number on their backs matter. Some coaches tend to back bigger names. I don’t think like that. For me, age or other factors don’t matter, talent does,” said Gholamreza about the squad he has picked. Fazel and Nabibakhsh are the only ones from the 2018 edition who will enter the mat in China.

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While India beat Iran to win the gold in the Asian championship, the matches were too close for comfort. Those gaps hurt the Iranians more than the Indians as they believe the margins boil down to India having more match experience.

“The national team needs more tournaments. In 15 years, we should have won 15 medals. That’s something that needs to be made available for players to be better on the mat,” Abozar underlined.

“See the gap between international competitions in kabaddi… after eight years, there’s one Asian championship. After 10 years, one World Cup comes along. India doesn’t know the pain because competitions are there, but other countries struggle a lot. I think we should have fixed windows for the Asian championship, World Cup and other potential international events,” Gholamreza said.

The Iranian once pitched a radical idea to E. Prasad Rao, PKL’s technical director, a few franchise owners and Deoraj Chaturvedi, former president of the International Kabaddi Federation, to boost the health of world kabaddi.

“I told them that we should make an Asian League. Give stronger countries more representation but allow countries to get involved. Get clubs to come in. This will help popularise the sport and bolster our efforts to get it recognised for the Olympics,” he explained.

The immediate goal, though, is to retain the Asian bragging rights. It takes something special to bring down a 28-year-old chokehold over a sport, but the task of defending that crown will require the Iranians to play out of their skins. “I think it’s hard for both teams — there’s pressure on Iran to repeat its feat and there’s pressure on India to reclaim its crown. There’s no room for mistakes,” Gholamreza said.

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