Will India match their aspirations?

Indian men's hockey team will be eyeing to defend its title at the Asian Games. DH File Photo

Indian sport will get its quadrennial reality check when they come face to face with the might of the continent at the 18th Asian Games beginning here on Saturday.

A troubled build-up phase has meant that the spotlight has largely stayed away from the preparation and readiness of the athletes. But in a little over two weeks’ time, it will be clear as daylight where the Indians really stand in comparison with their counterparts from across Asia.

For a big contingent of 571 athletes in 36 sports, India’s aspirations are high, as in the past, but aspirations have to match a certain standard in performance for the country to make a presence on the medals table. On that count, the Indians could find themselves falling short in many areas.

Unlike a country like China who mint gold in multiple events, India’s avenues are limited to a few when it comes to the top spots. Minor medals might come from a range of sports but for gold-class talent one has to strain the eyes and zoom in on a handful — kabaddi, athletics, shooting, badminton, wrestling, hockey and boxing.

Even in these events, there are no guarantees, only hopes and dreams.

With an Olympic spot up for grabs, hockey perhaps assumes high significance in Jakarta. After the low of the Commonwealth Games, the team has recovered well under coach Harendra Singh and look well-prepared to defend their gold medal. 

Shooting has kept its faith on a clutch of fearless young guns. For Manu Bhaker, Aneesh Bhanwala and Elavenil Valariven, it is an opportunity to learn as well as take the next higher step in their career. The reduction of events this time — down to 20 gold medals compared to 44 in Incheon — will affect India but they do have a chance in new mixed events in air rifle and air pistol.

For sheer excitement, the focus has to fall on badminton. In a country passionate about the sport, there will be hot duels, especially in women’s events. India have a strong squad this time, featuring the likes of P V Sindhu and Kidambi Srikanth but with Asia boasting of some of the best in the business, a medal of golden hue will have a very high value.

The young shoulders of Neeraj Chopra will bear the weight of expectations in athletics, with the javelin thrower having prepared meticulously for these Games. The  mixed 4x400 relay and the women’s 4x400 relay offers hope that India might match the two-gold haul of Incheon.

The absence of Mirabai Chanu has snuffed out India’s gold hopes in weightlifting while in wrestling, Bajrang Punia’s bright form augurs well. For the Indian women wrestlers, though, it will be a tough examination with Japan expected to rise high.

Boxers too will have to reveal their inner strength to match the Central Asians. There are Olympic medallists galore in the ring and as in badminton, a gold here would be the one to cherish.

Compound archers were India’s toast in Incheon but with individual events scrapped this time, they will need their top-ranked women to fire in the team event, along with the mixed team.

Tennis suffered a jolt with Leander Paes pulling out but with many leading players from Asia choosing to skip the event, India can fancy their chances. 

India will also consider themselves the favourites in kabaddi. A face-saver in the past, the players will be keen to save their faces, given the controversies that have preceded their departure. Many other components of the contingent too would love to do the same but whether they have the wherewithal remains to be seen.

 

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Will India match their aspirations?

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