Indias mens boxing contingent in London was its biggest and strongest in history. Yet,the seven boys returned home with no medals. Questionable tactics,poor planning and insufficient support staff are to blame,writes Daksh Panwar.
At a time when the country is basking in the glory of its best-ever medal haul at the Olympics which,at six,equals what was won in the last seven editions put together to talk about those that India didnt win might seem contrarian and harsh. Its somewhat like looking at a glass one quarter empty than three quarters full. Then again,take one look into L Devendro Singhs wistful eyes as he watches MC Mary Kom posing with her medal at a felicitation function in Delhi.
In London,he was a bout from an assured bronze,but a 23-18 loss to a tactically superior Irishman,Paddy Barnes,in the 49kg quarterfinal,left him four long,uncertain years from another shot. The loss rankles all the more as Devendro was one of Indias star performers across disciplines. On his way to the last eight,the pitbull of a fighter notched up two dominating wins,including one Referee Stops Contest. But when the bell rang for one final time in his quarterfinal,Devendro walked towards his corner knowing he had come up short.
The result also meant the seven-strong Indian mens boxing team,their biggest ever,and most formidable,came back empty handed. The contingent included an Olympic bronze medallist (Vijender Singh),the current World Championships bronze medallist (Vikas Krishan) and a Commonwealth Games gold winner (Manoj Kumar). In Beijing,India had just five,three of whom made the quarters or better. Of the London lot,five reached the last 16 and only two advanced further.
Questionable tactics and poor planning,both of which were most apparent in the talented Vikas Krishans disastrous first bout against Errol Spence in the 69kg division,may be to blame.
It was a bout we could have won with better tactics, says Beijing 2008 quarter-finalist Akhil Kumar. The 20-year-old Vikas was a medal favourite and with a bye in the first round by virtue of his seeding,he needed only two wins to assure himself of one. Instead,he was reduced to a virtual punching bag. He was in an ultra-defensive mode, says Akhil. In the later stages of a tournament,it might work,not initially. When coming off a bye,the body isnt loosened up.
Guard up,strategy down
To be fair,Vikas started confidently to pick up a 4-2 lead. However,as Spence showed urgency in round two,the Indian went into a shell or more aptly,into his shell-guard. Spence peppered him with a barrage of body shots,soon penetrating the guard. At one point,hit flush in the face by a combination,the Haryanvi appeared to deliberately spit his gum-shield out to bide some time an offence that retrospectively cost him a two-point penalty.
What the Indian corner told him during the break is unclear,but there was no change in Vikas strategy in the final round. That he is a cerebral boxer,one who plays chess and thoroughly plans his moves,seemed to have been taken to heart by the think-tank.
Vikas took a non-stop beating and,barely standing,leaned over his opponent to escape punishment. Nine such fouls in the round saw AIBA slap him with a further two-point penalty,giving Spence a 15-13 victory overturning the initial 13-11 result in the Indians favour.
India protested and in the ensuing controversy the focus was taken away from their questionable tactics and the glaring absence of a fallback plan. Plan B was missing again,as Devendro did nothing different after falling behind early to Barnes. Hum log abhi bhi dil se aur will se khelte hain, says Akhil,adding that there is hardly any strategy.
It brings us back to the assertion that poor tactics and preparations arent two different things. In London,India had a head coach,Gurbax Singh Sandhu,and two longtime assistants,Jaidev Bisht and Cuban BI Fernandez. Sandhu,most boxers say off the record,is more manager than coach; you want him around,but not in your corner during a crucial bout. He is there,telling you the score,sure enough,but hardly ever saying what to do differently.
Us and them
Sandhus equivalent in Team GB,whose mens contingent won two gold,a silver and bronze,is former WBC middleweight world title contender Rob McCracken,armed with a team of four coaches and 11 sports scientists. Their support staff,The Telegraphs boxing correspondent Gareth A. Davies writes (tiny.cc/pnx6iw),constructed individually-tailored plans for every fighter (ten in total) under their care.
In contrast,India have a one-for-all system. Raj Kumar Sangwan,former Asian super heavyweight champion,says: We have the same coaches from 20 years back. GS Sandhu and BI Fernandes may be doing a fine job,but is it fair to expect them to train boxers across 10 weight categories?
Akhil agrees. Each boxer,depending on his weight,has his own recovery period, he says. We should see each category as medal prospects,and not the whole boxing team as one.
Akhil also suggests the poor judging in a few bouts might be down to Indians throwing single,straight punches and not more combinations plus body shots that tend to yield more points.
In hindsight,Indias campaign got off to a poor start even before the first punch was thrown. Instead of heading to London from Ireland,where the team had a pre-games acclimatisation and training camp,they came back to India for a week. The long detour upset their rhythm and peak physical conditions,as a few struggled to maintain their respective weights.
Its a potentially disastrous situation,as the British teams nutritionist Mark Ellison suggests. The home teams boxers had their meals specially prepared and delivered. Day-in day-out. It meant they didnt have to cut weight before bouts. There is nothing worse in a long tournament than fighters being weight-drained, The Telegraph quoted Ellison. Sources close to the team say Vijender and Vikas,usual suspects in this regard,were sweating over their kilos before the Games,a distraction they could have easily avoided.
There,but not quite
Despite all these hindrances,Vijender did come painfully close to being a double Olympic medallist,but for a back that betrayed him against old foe,Uzbek Abbos Atoev. Two days later,with Devendros defeat,the process Vijender kick-started four years ago came to nothing. In the loss,however,there is a lesson: a medal wont lead to more medals without elaborate planning and ground work.
For Rio 2016,Raj Kumar Sangwan suggests,boxers would do well to join a professional fold AIBAs semi-professional World Series of Boxing to toughen up. There are things I learned only as a professional in the UK. I had to dig my heels when throwing a punch. A punch thrown on the move has little power. When someone is trying to hurt you,such punches may score but do little to slow down the other boy, he says.
Gurbax Sandhu agrees the Olympics were a setback,but insists India will overcome this phase. Usually these wake-up calls come in minor tournaments for us. Unfortunately,it came at the biggest of stages, he says. But we are on the right track. We need to keep the faith.
That last line doesnt appear too different from what he might have said to Vikas Krishan between rounds in London.
(With inputs from Jonathan Selvaraj)