India's campaign at the 2021 AIBA men's boxing world championships concluded on Thursday following the defeat of Akash Kumar in the semifinals of the men's 54kg division. Akash was the only Indian to compete in the semifinals of the 13 who had participated in the tournament. The return of one bronze medal in a competition with increased weight divisions and a diminished field might seem underwhelming, but there were plenty of positives. Competing with an almost entirely new look roster with almost no preparation, the Indian squad maintained its medal winning habit at the world championships - a record that has held since 2015.
ESPN speaks to the chief coach of the Indian men's boxing squad, Narender Rana, as he assesses the team's performance.
While not spectacular, the Indian men's boxing team's performance has been consistent over the years. Now, the solitary medal this year round might not seem like much, it marked the fourth straight tournament where India placed at least a single boxer on the podium - a record that's eluded several top boxing countries - including England and Azerbaijan.
"We are not among the very best teams but I think we can say we are in the top 8 or 9 teams in world boxing today," says Rana.
Rana's assessment is a fair one when you consider that India qualified 5 boxers for the quarterfinal - just a win away from a medal. That number would place them third in Asia, just one behind powerhouses Uzbekistan who had six quarterfinalists (although they had a better conversion with three medalists).
The result, feels Rana, could have been even better if not for some bad luck.
Sanjeet Kumar in the heavyweight category was one of the side's favourites for a medal but suffered a bad injury to his bicep in the first round of his quarterfinal bout. With his bicep muscle completely detached, the Indian (who is the current Asian Champion) ended up boxing a little over two rounds with just one functional arm. It is learned he will need surgery and a lengthy rehabilitation process before he returns to the ring.
The field in Belgrade was diminished in a sense. There were few returning Olympic medalists as countries started their preparation for the new Olympic cycle. It was, though, the same case for the Indians.
None of the Indians who qualified for the Olympics took part in the national championships, only the winners of which were picked for the worlds. As a result, the Indian squad competing at the 2021 World Championships was an almost entirely new look team. Only one of the 13 boxers who stepped into the ring in Belgrade had competed in the 2019 edition and only two (Shiva Thapa and Sanjeet Kumar) had any experience at the world championships prior to this edition.
"Before I came to the competition I was very nervous because 11 of the boxers in our team had never competed before. So I was not sure how they would respond at a big competition," says Rana.
As much of a worry was the fact that the Indian team had only had about a weeks practice together before catching their flight out of India. "We didn't have a lot of time together. The team was picked from the national championships and after that we only had a few days together. But no one performed below their ability," says Rana.
No stage fright
What gives coach Rana confidence was the fact that despite competing at the big stage for the first time, few of the boxers were overwhelmed by the occasion.
"One of the problems we would face in the past was that our boxers would get beaten mentally even before they stepped into the ring with boxers from the established nations like Cuba or Russia. These boys are new so they are carrying a lot more confidence," he says.
Sanjeet ousted Russia's Andrei Stotskii in his first bout of the tournament, while there were flashes of potential displayed elsewhere. Sumit Kumar took the first round against eventual finalist Yoenlis Hernandez of Cuba in the pre-quarterfinal while Rohit Mor went toe to toe with top Kazakhstan prospect Serik Temirzhanov and even took the final round before going down by a split decision
Room for improvement
While there is clearly plenty of bench strength in the country, Rana admits there's some work to be done to elevate the team's reputation from consistent quarterfinalists to placing more boxers in the semifinals.
"Our boxers are younger so they have a lot of aggression but one thing I've noticed is that our coaching concept is to constantly attack. I think we have to work on that. The best boxers at this world championships are excellent counterpunchers. They make you miss and then they hit you. Their footwork, especially, is a lot better than ours. They come into the ring, knowing they will counter and then move," says Rana.
With the World championships the final major competition of the year, Rana says he's looking forward to working on these skillsets with the team once they return to the national camp in Patiala. "These are the areas that will have to be worked on. We have time to implement the changes before the major competitions next year (Commonwealth and Asian Games)," he says.