Heading into the Asian Games 2018 in Jakarta, Indonesia, the Indian kabaddi teams - both men’s and women’s - enjoyed a flawless record at the continental showpiece.

While the men’s team had won gold in all the seven editions leading up to the Jakarta Games, the women’s team clinched the top podium in two editions. Women’s kabaddi was included in the Asian Games only from 2010.

Indian kabaddi’s dominance at the Asiad, however, came to a screeching halt in 2018 with Iran outclassing both the men’s and women’s teams at different stages of the tournament. 

The Indian men’s team, led by ace raider Ajay Thakur, were stunned 27-18 in the semi-finals. The women, meanwhile, fell 27-24 in the final.

Though both results came as huge shocks at the time, considering India’s outright dominance in kabaddi, the downfall was slowly brewing for a few years.

The rise of Iranian men’s kabaddi team 

Iran had come close to upstaging India in the previous Asian Games edition at Incheon in 2014. The Indian men’s team just about managed to hold their nerves to eke out a two-point win in the final.

Rakesh Kumar, the Indian captain at the time, said it was ‘a match India should not have won’. In hindsight, it seems like that was the point where Iran caught up with India.

Two years later, Ajay Thakur had expressed his concern about overconfidence creeping into the squad. It was reflected in the 2016 World Cup opener, where the Koreans got the better of the hosts at Ahmedabad. 

While India eventually won that tournament, the loss came as a reality check for many in the team. 

Two months before the 2018 Asian Games, India participated in the Kabaddi Masters Dubai with a squad that went on to play in the Asian Games, barring two changes. 

Iran, however, had to turn over a new leaf. They had just come off a shock defeat against Pakistan in November 2017. For the Dubai event, Iran’s coach put together an untested and unproven team of youngsters. 

Gholamreza Mazandarani, the Iran coach, brought in nine new players and dropped several experienced campaigners, including star Mairaj Sheykh, who did not make it to the Jakarta Games later, Abozar Mighani and captain Fazel Atrachali.

Mazandarani mentioned that he wanted to use the Dubai event to gauge the other teams and devise his strategies against them for the Jakarta Games.

Since India barely changed its squad for the Asian Games, it helped Iran make their strategy. Barring Thakur, nobody from the Indian squad had any Asian Games experience either. 

On that history-writing evening, the Iranians had all the boxes ticked and made India’s star raiders, including Pardeep Narwal, Monu Goyat, Rishank Devadiga, Deepak Hooda, and captain Thakur look harmless. 

Iranian captain Atrachali was never tagged at any point in the game. They dominated the match to land a spot in the final, where they defeated Korea to take home the deserving gold. 

The rise of the Iranian women’s kabaddi team

Ironically enough, the Iranian women’s kabaddi team’s win over India for the historic Asian Games gold came with the backing of an Indian in the former’s camp. 

The Iranian women’s team coach at the time was 62-year-old Shailaja Jain from Nashik, India. Over three decades, she had coached hundreds of kids in Maharashtra but never had an opportunity to coach the Indian national team. 

However, Iran approached her with an offer to coach their national team, and she took it up as a pathway to show what she was worth. She succeeded in style, tackling down the unbeaten champions on Kabaddi’s biggest stage at Garuda Theatre, Jakarta. 

“When I first visited Iran, I said my vision was to prove I’m the best coach. And now we have the result,” Shailaja told PTI after the win. 

Both winning coaches, Gholamreza Mazandarani and Shailaja Jain will continue as coaches for the upcoming 2022 Asian Games in Hangzhou, China. 

While India will be desperate to win back their Asian crown in 2022, Iran’s wins over them in the last edition has definitely instilled the belief among the other teams that the kabaddi giants can indeed be toppled. 

Author: Varsha Badrinath 

Featured photo: Pro Kabaddi