The buzz around the Abhay Prashal complex in Indore is about Sushil Kumar. The crowd outside wants to catch the glimpse of two-time Olympic medallist while the ones inside want to know who he fights on Friday in his first competitive bout in three years.
Wearing a red colour jacket with “Barca” written on the back, Sushil continues to make his way to the medical room. His one-time protege Amit Dahiya greets him on the way and Sushil taps on the cheeks. More young wrestlers step forward to touch his feet. Even at the weigh-ins, he is surrounded by wrestlers, bodyguards and coaches. The number increases when the officials join in. Sushil removes his clothes and steps on the weigh-in machine.
The metre reads 73.500 kg. Competing in the 74kg for Railways, Sushil makes weight by half a kilogram. A walk back to his car should not have taken more than five minutes but fans asking for selfies make it more than 20. Sushil smiles in every photo but is visibly frustrated at the crowd around him.
More people are expected to reach the complex when Sushil steps on the mat. He will be up against a wrestler from Mizoram in his first bout. In the top half of the draw, Sushil is expected to reach the final with ease. In a potential quarter-final, he faces Maharashtra’s Sandeep Kate before an expected semi-final against Uttar Pradesh. The lower half of the bracket will have the wrestlers from Haryana, Services and the second wrestler for Railways. Out of the 15 wrestlers, one will get a chance to wrestle Sushil if he makes the final.
National champion in 74kg, Jitender was expected to be Sushil’s toughest competition in Indore but he has moved up to the 79kg category for this tournament. Now, everyone expects Sushil to win the title. “I don’t think there is anyone who will be able to compete against Sushil tomorrow. No competition,” says Kuldeep Malik, former coach of the men’s team.
Satpal, bronze medallist from 2016 Nationals, says that even if there was a good wrestler in 74kg, he would not have been a match for Sushil simply because the way he trains. “Forget 74, even if he is wrestling a 120kg guy, Sushil will win. Bhaga bhaga ke marega. There is no way to confirm this but I doubt if any wrestler in India has wrestled him for full six minutes. No one in trials did because I have seen them. In other competitions, may be in his first senior year they could have wrestled him but not after that,” he says.
Before Sushil came for the weigh-ins, Narsingh Yadav, the wrestler who had won the quota to represent India at Rio Olympics, had reached the stadium. The two wrestlers, who were part of a legal battle to earn the right to wrestle in Rio, were 50 metres away but while Sushil prepared for his bout, Narsingh sat with the dignitaries. On Friday, the buzz will once again be all about Sushil if he wins the title.
Sakshi makes comeback [Detailed report]
Along with Sushil, the focus will also be on Sakshi Malik and Geeta Phogat as well. Sakshi will be competing at the nationals for the first time since 2015 edition in New Delhi. Being the only Indian woman with an Olympic medal, she is the biggest crowd-puller. But there is a buzz around Geeta as well. The ‘Dangal’ girl, as they call her here, will try to follow the footsteps of her younger siblings Vinesh and Ritu, who dominated their respective categories to win gold medals on the opening day.
There’s another Phogat in the fray — Sangeeta, who will compete in the 53kg category. Before winning the bronze medal in Rio, Sakshi had always been the second choice for India in 58kg, which Geeta had made it her own. She won the 2010 Commonwealth Games gold in New Delhi in this category, while Sakshi finished with a silver four years later in Glasgow. But now, Sakshi will be competing in 62kg while Geeta will wrestle in 57kg.
While the Indore crowd will be looking forward to the star wrestlers, they witnessed two of India’s top wrestlers dominate the mat on Thursday. Vinesh secured a gold medal in the 55kg while Ritu won her third consecutive gold medal in Senior Nationals.