For the flag-waving hardcore fans of the Pro Wrestling League, this is what the Season 4 finale threw up on Thursday. Haryana Hammers, having finished on the wrong side of the result in the previous three finals, lifted the PWL silverware when they defeated two-time defending champions NCR Punjab Royals 6-3 at Greater Noida. Haryana raced to 5-0 lead and it was over before their marquee player Bajrang Punia could even take the mat.
The shape-shifting, ever-shrinking league, however, stokes only perfunctory interest among most Indian sports fans. They care not as much about which team won the bragging rights as about the larger picture: How did the Indian wrestlers perform? Who was this season’s Pooja Dhanda, the Hisar wrestler who caused some major upsets last year and went on to replicate her form in international competitions, including the World Championships in Budapest where she won the bronze medal in the 57kg category.
In a significantly watered-down competition this season, Indian wrestlers, for a change, weren’t getting outclassed left, right and centre.
In fact, statistics show four out of the five top performers this year were locals as against ‘zero’ in the last two seasons. A weaker field, however, makes it difficult to appraise their performance. Still, the following names either defended their reputation or embellished it.
Bajrang Punia (65kg)
7 wins/7 matches: India’s top Olympic prospect picked up in 2019 from where he left off in 2018, when he won nearly everything on offer, save the World Championships gold. There wasn’t much competition in his category. His most anticipated bout was with former three-time World Champion (albeit in the 61kg category), Haji Aliyev. Bajrang’s agility and aggression shone through as he beat the Azeri 8-6. “The fact that I have a personal coach now has helped my game in the last one year,” Bajrang told The Indian Express. “That Haji Aliyev fight was a morale-booster. It was important that I begin well in a year which is going to be very crucial ahead of the Tokyo Olympics,” says the wrestler who heads to Germany to participate in the German Ringer League and will compete in the 67 and 72kg.
Ravi Kumar (57 kg)
7 wins/7 matches The one wrestler everyone was gushing about was Ravi Kumar. In a category that suffered the most as the league scaled down on the budget, failing to attract big names like Soslan Romanov and Vladimer Khinchegashvili, Ravi cleaned up the division. He beat World Under-23 Champion Ibragim Ilyasov of Azerbaijan and destroyed one of the top Indian wrestlers in the category, Sandeep Tomar. His attacking game is excellent and his defence is tight, making him one to watch out for.
Vinesh phogat (53 kg)
5wins/5matches Another Olympic medal hope for India, Vinesh Phogat too had a dominant tournament. Like Bajrang, Vinesh, too, had a watershed 2018 when she won the Commonwealth Games and Asian Games gold medals. Vinesh, it can be said, was stretched more than Bajrang. She was made to work by Vanesa Kaladzinskaya of Belarus. However, she used her remarkable upper body strength to overcome the 2017 World Champion 5-3 in an engaging bout. Vinesh also had to stave off a strong challenge from Rohtak’s Pinki to keep her slate clean. In a high- scoring affair against a very stubborn opponent, Vinesh just couldn’t hit her stride, but her experience carried her through as she won 14-9. That brings us to our fourth notable performer of the season, the giant-killing 22-year-old Pinki.
Pinki (53 Kg)
4 wins/5 matches With a spectacular four-point move as the seconds ticked away, Pinki turned the tables on Vanesa, winning the bout against the world champion 8-7. It showed both her skill and temperament. In doing so, she put all other wrestlers in the category on notice. India suddenly has two good wrestlers in the 53kg category. If Pinki moves up, and there remains some scope given her lanky frame, she can cause Pooja Dhanda problems in the 57kg bracket.