In the past week, the Iranians reaffirmed the reputation the country’s kabaddi team has been building in the last few years. It’s a team of wrestlers, converted into the raiders and defenders and is the only one that can topple India.
Yet that composition is what brings about the difference between the top two nations.
Iran sources its talent from ‘kushti,’ judo and taekwondo. But India specialises. Each and every player is born and bred into the sport. The contrast was evident in the final of the Kabaddi Masters Dubai, where India beat Iran 44-26.
This was the first time India was playing Iran since the final of the 2016 World Cup. On that occasion, in Ahmedabad, the hosts needed the heroics of veteran raider Ajay Thakur to help the team come from behind to quell the high-flying Iranians.
But those were different teams for both India and Iran. As the big names of kabaddi prepare for the biggest event in the sport, the Asian Games, the six-nation series in Dubai was a testing platform. The Indian squad had five new faces from the team that won the World Cup – all experienced campaigners in the Pro Kabaddi League that lived up to the high standards of the national team. It was a testimony to the incredible depth available to the national selectors.
“It’s a very difficult job to pick the team,” says head coach Srinivas Reddy. “Picking the 14 to make the national team is one thing, picking the starting seven is an even bigger problem.”
Just like the Indians, Iran too came to Dubai with a fresh squad as coach Gholamreza Mazandarani picked nine new players. The Middle Eastern nation’s transition though came as a form of shock therapy, and a necessity.
At the Asian Championships in November, held at Gorgan – Iran’s kabaddi capital – the hosts were upset in the semi-final by Pakistan. The loss prompted the federation to hire Mazandarani (who had left the team after leading them to the silver medal at the 2014 Asian Games). In turn, the coach decided to choose fresh players instead of regular stalwarts Meraj Sheykh, Abozar Mighani and captain Fazel Atrachali.
“This was good experience for our youngsters, particularly our defenders,” says the Iran coach. “The defence is young and didn’t have much match practice before this. But you will see a completely different team of Iran when we go to Jakarta.”
Despite the strong performance before in the lead up to the final, Iran was thoroughly outclassed and outmuscled by the Indians. Yet there were a few unsavoury incidents from the eventual victors.
Five minutes from the final whistle, Iran skipper Amirhossein Maleki stepped into a raid and was pounced upon by his opposite number Thakur. Surjeet Singh followed up with a supporting tackle of his own. Maleki stopped, conceding the raid and the whistle blew. But a third defender Girish Ernaik still charged and joined the melee.
The 25-year-old attacker injured his wrist and had to be substituted.
In Iran’s previous raid, the same three Indians harshly tackled Mohammad Mahali, with Thakur guilty of elbowing the Iranian.
Earlier still, Maleki had complained of Rishank Devadiga biting him, and Thakur unsportingly trying to gain a touchpoint on an Iran defender who had stopped to check on his injured teammate Hadi Tajik (hamstring injury).
“All their (Indian) players are rough,” says Mazandarni. “But the referees don’t say a thing.”
At the end of 40 minutes, the final didn’t quite live up to the close encounter it was expected to be. The Iranians knew that more than anyone else, each player removing their silver medals as soon as the mementos were hung on their necks.
Dubai was just a rehearsal though, for the real showdown that will take place later in Jakarta.
The writer is in Dubai on invite of Star Sports