August 5 marks the beginning of the wrestling event at the Commonwealth Games (CWG) in Birmingham, UK, and that’s always good news for India. Here is a sport where India can make a clean sweep—each of the 12 wrestlers who make up the contingent is expected to win a medal. At least six of them are expected to saunter to a gold. If shooting, India’s most successful discipline at the CWG is missing from this edition, at least wrestling can offer a platform for total domination. At the CWG, barring India, there is only one other nation that can claim a robust Olympic wrestling programme and that’s Canada.
Sports does not always have to be about stiff competition. Sometimes, easy, imperious victories are great fun: just ask football fans about the time their team routed another team by a massive margin!
Having closely followed wrestling for over a decade and witnessed first-hand India’s amazing rise at the global level in the sport, one of my favourite wrestling memories remains double-Olympic medallist Sushil Kumar running through the field like a lion through a flock of deer as the cavernous Indira Gandhi stadium erupted in excitement, on his way to gold at the 2010 CWG in New Delhi.
The Indian team for Birmingham features all of our best wrestlers too, led by Tokyo Olympics silver medallist Ravi Dahiya. World Championship medallist in 2019 and Asian champion for three years running now, this will be the bearded, intense fighter’s first CWG. It will take a miracle or an injury to stop him from decimating his field en route to gold.
The same can be said of Deepak Punia, at 23, one of our most exciting new wrestlers. The 86kg fighter from Haryana was world junior champion in 2019, before winning silver at the senior worlds the same year and silver at the Asian Championship this year.
Another superb rising star is 20-year-old Anshu Malik, who had a breakthrough season last year, picking up a silver medal at the world championships before winning the Asian title. The young Divya Kakran, Asian Champion two years in a row now, should have no trouble defending the CWG title she won at the 2018 Gold Coast Games.
The CWG is not just about easy wins for Indian wrestlers—it also provides a great platform for young fighters like Anshu and Divya to familiarize themselves with major multi-sport events, with an eye on the 2024 Olympics in Paris. For some others, it provides an opportunity to rediscover their form and confidence. In Birmingham, three of India’s most decorated wrestlers will fall into that category. Bajrang Punia may have three world championship medals, a bucketful of Asian Championship medals, and the title to boast of from the 2018 Asiad and CWG, yet the 28-year-old had a torrid time at the Tokyo Olympics. Seeded No.1 in his category going into Tokyo, Bajrang expected nothing less than gold from himself. Instead, he battled a knee injury to scrape through to a bronze, and wore a dejected, sombre look even as he accepted his medal. After months spent training in the US, Bajrang would be using the CWG to test how far his recovery has come.
Two of India’s best and most well-known women wrestlers too will be in search of a much-needed boost to their confidence. Sakshi Malik threw open the doors for aspiring women wrestlers in what remains a very parochial, patriarchal sport in India by becoming the first Indian woman to win an Olympic medal in wrestling (2016, bronze), but she has been struggling since 2019, in and out of the national team, and often falling down in even the domestic pecking order in her weight category. The two-time CWG medallist needs a major competition win to find some of the infectious, happy confidence she is known for.