Manju Rani’s incredible journey with a self-taught coach
Rani, fourth among five siblings whose father, a BSF jawan, died of cancer in 2012, also went to stay with Narwal and train, thus starting her speedy journey to Indian boxing’s higher echelons.Updated: Oct 14, 2019 09:27 IST
‘Dhoka hai, sab dhoka,’ Sahab Singh Narwal emphatically states, sitting on a charpoy, about the one common factor that binds kabaddi, hockey and boxing. He has played hockey and kabaddi and is a self-taught boxing coach—now a rather famous one. His pupil Manju Rani won silver on Sunday on her world championships debut at Ulan-Ude, Russia. Rani fought her heart out but lost a close bout (1-4) to home favourite Ekaterina Paltceva in 48kg.
As you glance bewildered at Narwal, he explains his dhoka, or dodge.
“In all the three sports, it’s about dodging the opponent. In hockey, you have to dodge to score, in kabaddi the raider has to be good in dodging, and in boxing you have to feint and throw your punches,” says Narwal, indulging in a quick routine of shadow boxing to demonstrate his point.
That’s how Narwal breaks down his boxing and experience drawn from the two sports he has played at state level. He is flanked by Rani’s family members and villagers from Rithal, 15 km from Haryana’s Rohtak town, who have all gathered to watch her final bout on a big screen.
The only semblance of boxing in Narwal’s house is a punching bag hanging from a tree. There is no ring. This is the Narwal training ground from where Rani has graduated to get within a few punches of a world championship. It was in her village Rithal that Rani got her first boxing lessons from Narwal, in 2012 in an open space near a pond. Narwal flips through his album, showing the pictures of around 25 kids training in a makeshift ring set up on a concrete floor. Two years ago, he sold his plot of land in the village and took up rented accommodation in Rohtak adjacent to the National Boxing Academy so that his trainees can benefit.
Rani, fourth among five siblings whose father, a BSF jawan, died of cancer in 2012, also went to stay with Narwal and train, thus starting her speedy journey to Indian boxing’s higher echelons.
“There were a lot of problems back home. We are a big joint family and we were completely dependent on her father’s pension,” says Rani’s mother Ishwati Devi. “Bhai saab (Narwal) is a family friend and he wanted Manju to take up the sport. Once she was into boxing, he has taken full responsibility. He kept her at his home here and we never had to worry about Manju.”
Narwal had been training children at Rithal in kabaddi and hockey when Haryana government’s talent hunt scheme, launched in 2010, was introduced in the village. NIS-trained boxing coach Sube Singh was the instructor and he was impressed with the athleticism of those under Narwal. “He asked me to train them in boxing. The children were fast and strong,” Narwal recalls.
Sube Singh taught Narwal boxing skills. Narwal then trained himself for instructing the budding boxers, and visited academies in Bhiwani, a boxing hub. There were a few who taunted him but there were also those who supported his efforts. “If you can grasp the basics, it’s not difficult. When I started learning the sport, I had doubts how I will do it. What if I convey something wrong to the kids? I did my own research, saw bouts on videos and showed them to the kids,” he says.
Narwal’s children Ankit and Anshu are both in the national reckoning. Ankit is with the national youth team in Ireland on an exposure trip and daughter Anshu has been competing at state level. Jony Phogat, Nisha Phogat and Manisha Narwal have won medals for India in junior and youth international meets.
Since Narwal shifted to Rohtak, several children from the neighbourhood have joined for training. “He doesn’t charge a penny, pays from his pocket for gloves and other accessories and manages with limited means. He treats every kid as his own,” says Sunil Kumar, whose daughter Diksha trains under Narwal and won a medal at the School Games.
Success at last
Once in Rohtak, Narwal approached Amanpreet Kaur, India junior women’s team coach in the SAI academy and asked her to test Rani.
“We were very impressed with Rani and inducted her in the SAI centre. In Haryana, you will see many self-taught coaches. Saheb Singh ji is good in his skills,” says Amanpreet.
She recalls the day Rani was reduced to tears. She was facing the consequences of having a coach who arrived without any credentials but was becoming a threat to established names. She was being ignored in Haryana and losing matches.
“Given Rani’s talent she should have represented Haryana, but she was not getting her due. We had to find a way and that was to change her state,” says Amanpreet, who trained her at NBA.
She helped Rani get admission in Lovely University in Punjab and represent the state. It proved a game changer. “She is honest and disciplined. I always felt she is in a hurry. You give her an opportunity and she proves herself every time. She lost her father early. The financial condition at home was not good. You want to prove something and boxing was her way of expressing herself,” she says.
Rani won the national title (48kg) in January from Punjab and made it to the India team, winning silver in Strandja international and bronze at Thailand and India Open. With the world championship silver, Rani has just showed talent can never be suppressed for long.