India brace up for continental bash

Rocky build-up and lack of form notwithstanding, athletes hope for an encore of Guangzhou

India brace up for continental bash

Undeterred by a rocky build-up and the fact that many of their past performers are yet to hit the top note in a season of mixed fortunes, India will be hoping to match their deeds of Guangzhou when the 17th Asian Games get under way on Friday.

Four years ago, Indian athletes enjoyed their best-ever Asiad in terms of overall medals won, finishing with 14 gold, 17 silver and 34 bronze. However, that performance came in vastly different circumstances and if they aspire to create an encore, they have to punch well above their weight over the next fortnight.

Having said that, India, barring a few blips, have a good track record at the continental bash and with many medal contenders in their ranks, they will be striving for success. It won’t be an easy task though this time, in several of the events that contributed heavily to India’s count last time.

Athletics was the most successful discipline at Guan­gzhou with returns of five gold, two silver and five bronze. It seems very unlikely the track and field battlers will touch similar heights at the Incheon Asiad Main Stadium. With several athletes struggling to find their rhythm in a relatively poor season, much of the hopes rest on the broad shoulders of Vikas Gowda.

The towering discus-thrower has been the standout performer for India so far, nailing a gold at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games to become the second Indian male athlete after Milkha Singh to claim a yellow metal. With a season’s best hurl of 65.62 metres, Vikas, who won bronze last time, leads the list among Asians but is certain to be tested by Iranians Mohammad Samimi (65.46 SB) and Ehsan Hadadi (65.23 SB).

Arpinder Singh, fresh from the triple jump bronze at Glasgow Games, appears good to climb the podium having leapt a year’s best of 17.17 metres while Tintu Luka seems to be struggling, going by her latest performance at the Continental Cup in Morocco.

Quartermiler MR Poovamma has the potential to spring a surprise but the darlings of Guangzhou, Preeja Sreedharam (5000, 10000M) and Ashwini Akkunji (400M hurdles, 4x400M relay), have gone off the boil since then due to various reasons and medal around their necks can be considered a bonus.

If there is one sport that the country banks upon to deliver the riches, it is shooting with Jitu Rai clearly the commander in chief this time. The 26-year-old Armyman, set to be competing in 10M air pistol and 50M pistol, arrives on the back of a stupendous year, most recently winning the 50M pistol silver at the World Championships in Granada.

The poster boy of Indian shooting, Abhinav Bindra, having won his first individual CWG gold at Glasgow, would be gunning for his maiden Asiad individual gold as well when he takes aim in his pet air rifle event. 10M air pistol shooter Heena Sidhu, who peaked to World No 1 earlier this season, has faded a bit since then but Gagan Narang, Manavjit Singh Sandhu, Olympic silver medallist Vijay Kumar and Prakash Nanjappa offer hope.

A strong source of energy for India is kabaddi, where they can dubbed as the Invincibles. Even since the sport’s debut in Beijing 1990, the men have been unbeaten, romping to six straight golds. Buoyed by the advent of the very successful Pro Kabaddi League, they appear more confident than ever before and another triumph won’t come as a surprise. The women too made a golden debut at the last edition and they are primed to extend their reign.
In the mat, Yogeshwar Dutt (65kg) will lead the grapplers’ conquest with the squad oozing with talent and confidence following the stellar CWG show. Amit Kumar (57kg), Bajrang (61kg) and Satywart Kadian (97kg) appear genuine contenders in freestyle while Sandeep Yadav (66kg) is tipped to do well in Greco-Roman. The Indians though will face stiff competition from powerhouses like Iran, Kazakhstan, Japan and Korea with the challenge here considered as tough as the Olympics.

There is scope in other disciplines like boxing, hockey, archery, badminton and weightlifting as well. The men’s hockey team, playing with the same team that won the silver at Glasgow CWG, have the talent and skill to rise to the top of the podium for the first time since 1998 while badminton hopes will be pinned heavily on Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu, who will have to end up cracking the daunting Chinese code.

After beginning the year on a disappointing note, archer Deepika Kumari is slowly finding her groove but things will get tougher with the Koreans, the dominant force in the sport, set to take aim at home. The weightlifters enjoyed a brilliant visit to Glasgow CWG, with the ghosts of doping not haunting them for once but a medal from them will be a surprise.

The boxers, whose participation under the Indian flag was approved just on Tuesday by world body AIBA, have the seasoned Akhil Kumar and MC Mary Kom with L Devendro Singh, Shiva Thapa and Mandeep Jangra  having the potential to land solid  blows.

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