After almost a year in hibernation, Sakshi Malik will return to the wrestling mat this week. However, it won’t be so straightforward. Last week, Sakshi outclassed national champion Manju Kumari 10-0 during the selection trials for the Asian Championships, which begin here on Wednesday. Sakshi was immediately drafted into the squad and was expected to fight in the 58kg category.
On the eve of the tournament, though, it turned out that she is overweight for 58kg. Realizing that she wouldn’t be able to reduce weight in time for the tournament, and considering she is one of the biggest draws from India’s perspective, the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) decided on Tuesday to make her compete in the 60kg category.
To accommodate the Rio Olympics bronze medallist, national champion in 60kg, Sarita Mor, has been asked to compete in the 58kg category. That has left her just two days to reduce her weight to be eligible as the weigh-in for 58kg is scheduled for Friday.
However, there is another complication. Manju has now staked her claim for a spot in the 58kg category. Insisting that since she is the national champion in that weight category, Manju has demanded she should be selected for the 58kg category and not Sarita. The WFI, however, is unlikely to make any changes at this late hour.
“Sakshi was a bit overweight for 58kg. So we have swapped her and Sarita for this event,” women’s chief coach Kuldeep Malik said. “Federation has the right to decide which wrestler competes in which category.”
It’s a scenario that could have been avoided. But it’s only ironic that a selection dilemma has overshadowed another major tournament. This time last May, the WFI was grappling with the controversy involving Sushil Kumar and Narsingh Yadav. Since then, the story of Indian wrestling has been selection muddles, numerous cases of indiscipline, poor fitness and forgettable results.
Without the injured Yogeshwar Dutt, virtually-retired Sushil and suspended Narsingh, India enter the Asian Championships not as a powerful wrestling nation it promised to be, but more like an underdog trying to punch above its weight.
The results of late have been uninspiring, as was evident at the World Cup earlier this year. Last-minute pullouts, poor fitness and forfeiting ties has become a norm, rather than exception. The foreign coaches have been sent home and the pressure on the national coaches is immense. Sources say failure to win medals this week would lead to their ouster as well.
India’s hopes will be pinned on defending champion in 57kg Sandeep Tomar and Bajrang Punia (65kg) in the men’s freestyle section but in most other categories, India have fielded largely untested wrestlers. The Asian Championship will be a crucial reckoner to gauge India’s readiness for August’s World Championship and the Commonwealth Games, which are less than a year away. “It has been a tough year for us, starting with the Sushil-Narsingh episode. But we are trying to put all the controversies behind us. For this tournament, we have given our team foreign exposure by sending them to Bulgaria for training and competition and have had a long camp. Hopefully, it’ll show in the results,” WFI president Brijbhushan Sharan Singh said.
The Championship begins with Greco-Roman style on Wednesday, where India’s biggest hope will be Naveen in the 130kg.
On the women’s side, the focus will firmly be on Vinesh Phogat who will compete in her first major tournament after suffering a knee injury at the Rio Olympics. Sakshi’s decision to compete in the 60kg category puts her in a tough draw as, including her, it will have three Olympic medallists. Japan’s Risako Kawai will be the favourite in this category along with China’s Zhangting Zhou (bronze medallist in 58kg at Rio).
While requesting the WFI to change her category, Sakshi said she felt stronger in 60kg. Whether she has the strength to carry burden of the entire contingent remains to be seen.