Asian Games 2018: At the heart of Korea’s fairy tale, an Indian protagonist

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Written by Shahid Judge | Updated: August 21, 2018 11:28:05 am
Korea beat India 24-23 in a tense encounter; (right) Coach Ashan Kumar. (Source: PTI)
Coincidentally, India’s first ever loss at the Asian Games came against a team that is coached by the man who had captained India to its first kabaddi gold in 1990.

Ashan Kumar speaks slowly over the phone, pausing regularly to take in a few gulps of air. For moments earlier, he had been hugged by the group of 12 muscular kabaddi players that make up the South Korean men’s team at the Asian Games.

“Ek ek kar ke aye sab,” says the Korean team’s head coach. “Rote hue gale lagaye aur phir sab bole, ‘sorry Papa.’” The apology was by no means intended for the state they had left him in after the tight embrace. It was in fact for the shock 24-23 defeat the Koreans had inflicted on the mighty Indians, Kumar’s countrymen. For the first time since kabaddi was introduced as a medal event at the Asian Games in 1990, an Indian team lost a match. And it wasn’t because the Galacticos of the sport had fielded a below-par team. Four of the five Indian crorepatis—based on the recent Pro Kabaddi League auction —were on the team sheet, including the most expensive Rs 1.51 crore acquisition Monu Goyat. In contrast, the Koreans were made up of a squad with one household name from the PKL, captain Jang Kun Lee.

Coincidentally, India’s first ever loss at the Asian Games came against a team that is coached by the man who had captained India to its first kabaddi gold in 1990.

“Dil ko imaandaari se kaam karna chahiye, jo maine kiya,” he says. “My job was to lead the players against any opposition, even if it was against my own country. And the team knew that. Maybe that’s why they were so tearful and grateful at the end of the match. They told me, ‘good coach, good coach.’” Kumar’s association with the Korean team dates back to before the 2014 Asian Games, when the inexperienced lot of kabaddi newbies had travelled to Gandhinagar for a three-month camp under the tutelage of Kumar and Jaiveer Sharma. The goal at that time was to try and get as big a result as possible at Incheon 2014. They won bronze.

For Jakarta, the target is much higher, and with the win over the Indians, they’ve already started hitting above their weight. They did however, take the necessary measures for those unexpected results. For starters, Kumar, for his rapport with the players, was roped into training the Koreans at their centre in Busan.

“They’d say ‘Papa swaagat hai’ when I went there,” Kumar says. “They’d changed so much since the last time I met them, in terms of skill, confidence and talent. Their Hindi too had improved.”

Most in the Korean team have begun sporting tattoos with Hindi words. Corner defender Seong Ryeol Kim for one, would show off his selection, ‘Korea ka Gaurav,’ inked on his chest at any opportunity he got during the Kabaddi Masters Dubai two months back.

Technically, some work had to be done, but not so much on the physical side. “The weather in Korea is nice and cold, so these guys have a lot of endurance. Their diet too has a lot of meat in it, which means solid proteins and raw power,” Kumar says. “What they were missing was experience. A lot of the players are in PKL teams but haven’t had much playing time,” he added.

The training camp for the four months Kumar has been with the team was shifted from the garage that housed the team for years, to Busan University’s well-equipped judo hall.

“It gave me the chance and space to put them into some potential real match situations and train them for it,” he says. “Just the technique and skills needed polishing.”

The shock win on Monday though wasn’t the first time the Koreans have pulled off an upset over India. Two years ago at the World Cup in Ahmedabad, the East Asians came up with a thrilling 34-32 win over the hosts. As such, they became the only team to beat the Indians twice on mat.

India’s captain Ajay Thakur had once dubbed the Koreans the “most hard working players in the sport.” “In India, we sometimes tend to get over-confident because we’ve got such a big depth,” Thakur told The Indian Express in June. “If one player is not getting results, he knows someone else will bail him out. That’s how we lost to Korea at the World Cup. They don’t take anything for granted.” Now, at the Garuda Theatre in Jakarta, the Koreans have got another result to show for it.

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