Rio Olympics bronze-medallist Sakshi Malik will be the star attraction and spearhead the Indian challenge at the Asian Wrestling Championship.
In the absence of some of the leading grapplers such as Yogeshwar Dutt, Sushil Kumar and the famous Phogat sisters — Geeta and Babita — the onus will be on the likes of Sakshi, Olympian Sandeep Tomar and Bajrang Punia to help India improve on its last year’s performance at the showpiece event.
India had bagged a total of nine medals including a gold, three silver and five bronze when the tournament was held in Bangkok, Thailand last year. Sandeep (mens’ 57 kg freestyle) was the only Indian to have won a yellow metal there.
This is the first major competition for the Indian wrestlers this year and the country will field a strong 24- member team for the Championship with eight each in freestyle, women and Greco-Roman categories.
During the competition, 112 freestyle, 103 Greco-Roman and 83 female wrestlers will be vying for 24 gold and silver along with 48 bronze medals.
Some of the top grapplers from Iran, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Japan, Korea, China and Mongolia, besides India will be fighting for top honours at the KD Jadhav wrestling arena at the five-day long event, which will conclude on May 14.
While all eyes would be on Sakshi, she may find it a bit tough against some of Asia’s best grapplers in women’s 58 kg freestyle category as this is her first major outing after the Rio Games.
After scripting history by becoming the first Indian woman wrestler to win an Olympic medal at Rio de Janeiro, she only took part at the Pro Wrestling League (PWL) earlier this year and fought just a couple of bouts.
However, she proved her calibre at the recent trials in Lucknow for the Asian Championship, outplaying Manju 10-0 in a technical knockout.
Other women wrestlers to look out for would be the lesser known Phogat sisters — Vinesh and Ritu.
2014 Commonwealth Games gold-medallist Vinesh, who suffered a serious injury during the Rio Olympics, will be making a strong comeback in the Championship.
Vinesh had bagged a bronze in 53kg in the last edition, along with two more Haryana women wrestlers Anita (bronze in 63kg) and another Phogat, Priyanka (silver in 55kg).
Ritu, who had missed a medal by a whisker last year, would be hoping to make amends this year.
In men’s freestyle, India would be hoping for Sandeep and Bajrang (65kg) to come good, while Jitender (75kg), who has been slowly emerging out of the shadows of two-time Olympic medallist Sushil and suspended Narsingh Yadav, would also fancy his chances.
It will be interesting to see how Sakshi’s husband Satyavrat Kadian (97kg), who got a walkover after opponent Mausam Khatri skipped the trials due to his marriage, performs at the upcoming tournament.
Greco-Roman is not India’s forte but a couple of them may just spring a surprise in their own backyard.
Iran have been the title-holders in both freestyle and Greco-Roman sections for the past two editions of the tournament in Qatar and Thailand.
Iranians also rank first in the all-time medal table with a total of 344 medals including 175 gold, 75 silver and 94 bronze. In the team category too, Iran stand on top the table with a total of 34 titles.
The Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) President Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh is expecting a good show from the hosts.
“The recent invitational event in Bulgaria went off well. Considering the standard of the tournament, three medals was a good effort. We expect the team to do well,” Singh said.