Updated: October 14, 2019 4:48:24 am
“You’ll never hear any complaints about Manju. Always on time, never slacks off during training, very disciplined. But the one thing I would sometime feel is that she’s a little reserved. Thoda chup-chup rehti thi,” Ali Qamar, women’s chief coach says after the closing ceremony of the Women’s World Championships. “Right now, it’s good to see her laughing, enjoying. She is making friends with boxers from other countries and clicking photos, exchanging numbers. That honestly is the most heartening thing. For a boxer, growth shouldn’t be limited to inside the ring.”
For Manju Rani, personal betterment has followed in-ring exploits, a fruitful freshman year capped off with a World Championships silver. Manju, who turns 20 later this month, lost Sunday’s final 4-1 to Russia’s Ekaterina Paltceva, falling a step short of replicating the feat achieved at senior nationals, clinching gold in her maiden appearance.
After years waiting to be selected, the boxer from Rithal, Haryana, chose to represent Punjab in national competition. Sube Singh Beniwal, Manju’s childhood coach who prompted the move, explains the bashfulness Qamar alludes to.
“There was a lot of nervousness. Mostly because after she wasn’t selected for a long time, she started doubting herself. She’d go, ‘why is this happening to me? maybe this is my level’,” says Beniwal. “Sharmaati thi, kuch khul ke bolti nahi thi (She was very shy, never opened up). I used to remind her that she’s too talented for this level, and it would only take a breakthrough for everyone to realise that.”
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Even after the shift to Punjab, there was apprehension at the nationals as Beniwal expected uproar if Manju had to face the contender from Haryana.
“That’d have been problematic. They would have complained and yelled about how can a Haryana girl face a statemate. Thankfully, that girl lost her match and Manju won gold.”
Manju further cemented her place in the national camp with a silver at the Strandja memorial and a bronze at the India and Thailand Open. In August, she beat President’s Cup gold medallist and former national champion Monika in the selection trials to make the Worlds squad.
“When we spoke on Friday, I reminded her of the journey and the year it has been,” says Beniwal, adding that for the final, he asked his ward to believe in herself. The coaching staff in Ulan-Ude had a more practical advice: “You are fighting a Russian in Russia. You have to win the final handily.”
“We had already told her before the start. ‘We will lose if this bout is close or you two look equal. You need to dominate’,” says Qamar. “I believe she dominated. We were worried about unnees-bees ka farak. She was 20, and the other boxer was 18.”
The Indian began the bout confidently, launching double jabs and 3-4 punch combinations. She also spent the round fidgeting with her headgear, and asked for a time-out after two minutes. Beniwal believes the 50-second break in action which followed “affected her concentration”, while Qamar says the brief stoppage only “helped as Manju looked even sharper afterwards”.
Manju was clever, moved well but was punished whenever she tried to exchange with the shorter southpaw. Then after two busy rounds, Manju hung back, waiting to catch the Russian on counters; a risky strategy in any boxing match and especially so in a World Championship final against the hometown favourite.
“In our view she won the first two rounds, so in the third we asked her not to exert herself to avoid injuries. So that round was a bit low for us,” says Qamar.
The Indian lost the third round on all five scorecards. Questionable strategies notwithstanding, Manju is a decidedly work-in-progress prospect. She is a loose striker, with quick combos. She also has an height advantage over other light-flyweights. But ring awareness and adapting will only come with experience.
“She has the height and the range. Sometimes, she goes on to attack, and that gives chance for a shorter opponent to get inside and counter. All the time we had to tell her to stay on the back-step counter,” says Qamar. “But it’s all about the experience. This was her first major competition and she performed freely. More such events will sharpen her.”
In recent history, barring Mary’s Worlds gold last year, India has had to be content with silver linings, all of which faded soon after. Sonia Chahal, Sonia Lather, Sarjubala Devi, Saweety Boora all made the final but couldn’t build on the performances.
There are high hopes however from Manju. For one, the Olympic dream (and the weight of expectations) is on the back-burner till Paris. And with the sharp development Manju has shown over a short period, a little more room to grow certainly can’t hurt.
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