For Indian kabaddi team, defeat is not an option
Right after India and Iran won their respective semifinals against Thailand and South Korea in the 2016 Kabaddi World Cup on Friday, there were two varied reactions. The Iranians resorted to falling on the mat in unison like nine pins in bowling. There were a few backflips too. By contrast, the Indians, aware that the real contest lay on Saturday, were a much muted bunch. There were smiles and waves to the crowd, but the restraint shown was visible.
After all, the Indian team can hardly afford to get carried away. The kabaddi mat has been the Indian team's domain ever since the sport was inducted into the Asian Games in 1990. They swept all the seven gold medals on offer in the competition apart from the two World Cup titles. None of the Indians competing at the World Cup would want to be known as players part of a losing Indian team.
Any complacency the Indian team had coming into the World Cup was shaken out of them in their tournament opener against South Korea, where the latter scored an upset 34-32 win.
That slight to the ego seems to have spurred the Indian team's determination. Players like Ajay Thakur (52 raid points) and Pardeep Narwal (47) have been among the top raiders in the competition while veteran Manjeet Chhillar (22 tackle points) has been India's bedrock in defence with Surjeet (20) and left corner Surender Nada (20) pitching in with vital points.
Captain Anup Kumar has not racked up the points but it's his reassuring presence and knowledge of when to slow down the speed of the game that is really what matters to the team.
Since the opening night disappointment, India have trounced Australia (54-20), Bangladesh (57-20), Argentina (74-20),England (69-18) and Thailand (73-20).
The margin of those scores will matter for little when they face Iran tonight. The Iranians came close to India's juggernaut in the 2014 Asian Games final but lost by a two-point margin. That narrow defeat has tempered their resolve and their players have stated time and again, they're in India only for a gold medal.
Led by the charismatic Meraj Sheyk, who has racked up points in both attack and defence, the Iranians had a few close contests in the group stage against Kenya (33-28) and Japan (38-34) before losing to Poland (25-41). They shook off that defeat by rolling over the Koreans 28-22 in the semifinal.
In left corner Fazel Atrachali they have the perfect antidote for India's Thakur, who is a predominantly right-sided raider. Atrachali was unnaturally low-key in the semifinal against South Korea, but has racked up 18 points in defence for the team, mainly from his ankle holds.
The Iranians will still be underdogs going into the final, but the pressure of being favourites, that too in front of a home audience, can do strange things to even the best of teams.
For the Indian kabaddi team tonight, defeat is not an option.