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It still stings Meraj Sheykh when he thinks about the two point loss Iran suffered against India at the Asian Games two years ago. It was his final raid that could have won his team the match – and gold medal – had he not been captured by the Indian defenders. Since then, the Iran captain has been looking for a chance to avenge the loss. That opportunity comes again now, two years later, at the kabaddi World Cup final.
At the Arena by Transstadia in Ahmedabad, Iran will play India in the final for the fifth time in a major international tournament – including the 2010 and 2014 Asian Games, and World Cups in 2004 and 2007. Though the Gulf outfit is hoping to overturn their luck against the hosts, the odds are still stacked in favour of India.
The game most certainly will be won or lost depending on the form of each team’s raiders. For the Indians, Ajay Thakur and teenager Pardeep Narwal have been in stellar form, with the former actually standing second in the leaderboard for most number of successful raid points in the tournament – 52.
On the other hand, Iran has struggled to break ground with their inconsistent raiding performances. Barring Sheykh, who has spent a considerable amount of time on the bench to help recover from a finger injury, the trio of Abolfazl Maghsoudlou, Mohammadesmaeil Maghsoudloumahalla and Mohsen Maghsoudloujafari haven’t done much to lift the pressure in terms of earning raids points for the team. In fact, the four raiders have amassed 68 raid points compared to the 99 picked up by just Narwal and Thakur for India.
In terms of the defensive structure, both sides boast a powerful lineup. India’s vice-captain Manjeet Chhillar tops the chart for the most successful defender – 21 tackles – with fellow cover defender Surjeet trailing by just a single tackle. Then there is the experience of Dharmaraj Cheralathan on the left corner, and raw power of Sandeep Narwal on the right flank. On the bench too, India boasts the flamboyant cover-pair of Mohit Chhillar and Surender Nada – the latter also has 20 successful tackles to his name.
The Iranians in turn have demonstrated their own skill in defence, which stems from each players’ training in ‘Kushti’ to aid their kabaddi. Abozar Mighani has been colossal in his favoured right corner position. He shares a strong combination with the right-in defender Farhad Milaghardan, while Soleiman Pahlevani announced his credentials early on in the tournament as a centre defender. Then there is the charisma, daring and power of Fazel Atrachali on the left corner.
An interesting contest may come in the form of Fazel’s battle against India captain Anup Kumar – who is a right-sided raider and will come directly under Fazel’s gaze. They were also teammates at U Mumba in the PKL for two seasons, and will know each other’s games well.
One positive the Iran defence has over the Indians is that Iran has been much more successful in not allowing easy bonus points when compared to the hosts. It is a feat they used well to shut down the Korean raiders and build pressure on Jang Kun Lee in the semi-final.
In turn, crowd support may be a factor that might help the Indians, though Anup has often mentioned he likes his players to shut the audience from their minds and focus on the game. Either way, Ahmedabad may just witness another India win. Or, the end to decades of dominance.