Asian Games: Bajrang Punia back in action as Indian wrestlers start tough campaign

Bajrang Punia and Antim Panghal ESPN

Bajrang Punia, who was integral part of the Indian wrestlers protests earlier this year, is set to compete for the first time in over a year as wrestling gets underway at the Hangzhou Asian Games on October 4.

India have named a full-strength 18-member squad that has a mix of Olympians such as Bajrang and Deepak Punia as well as India's next-gen wrestlers in Antim Panghal and Aman Sehrawat.

Who is in India's wrestling team for the Asian Games?

Greco-Roman: Gyanender (60kg), Neeraj (76kg), Vikash (77kg), Sunil Kumar (87kg), Narinder Cheema (97kg) and Naveen (130kg)

Men's Freestyle: Aman Sehrawat (57kg), Bajrang Punia (65kg), Yash (74kg), Deepak Punia (86kg), Vicky (97kg) and Sumit (125kg).

Women's Freestyle: Pooja Gehlot (50kg), Antim Panghal (53kg), Mansi Ahlawat (57kg), Sonam Malik (62kg), Radhika (68kg) and Kiran (76kg)

What was the drama during squad selection?

There were selection trials for every category held back in July but with a caveat: Bajrang and Vinesh Phogat would be given an exemption.

The reason was that the ad-hoc committee, which was in charge of the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI), felt the two wrestlers deserved a spot in the squad without a trial. There was a selection clause in the WFI policy that allowed reigning World Championship medallists to get direct entry and they had not trained for a long time due to the protests they held against the erstwhile WFI president Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh

This, however, did not go down well with Vishal Kaliraman and Antim. They both won the trials that were held in New Delhi but were named as standbys for Bajrang and Vinesh respectively.

Who are the medal contenders?

Six Indian wrestlers - Radhika, Mansi, Kiran, Vikas, Neeraj and Naveen - have both got byes in the first round and are each a win away from a bronze.

Apart from them, the four wrestlers who will be expected to medal are:

Aman: He's the reigning U20 World champion, the Asian champion and has established himself as India's #1 wrestler in the 57kg category. And this is a fine chance for the 19-year-old to prove himself at the senior level.

Bajrang: It's going to be extremely difficult. A lot has changed over the last year and Iran's Rahman Amouzad, a two-time Asian champion, is the undoubted favourite. Bajrang will also be wary of Uzbekistan's Abbos Rakhmonov, who had beaten the Indian at the Bolat Turlykhanov Cup last year.

Deepak: He's making a comeback after a year-long hiatus and has two main men to get past: the legendary Hassan Yazdani and Azamat Daulaetbekov. Yazdani has won six World and Olympic medals since winning the 2018 Asian Games and won silver at the Worlds last month while Kazakhstan's Daulaetbekov is also a Worlds bronze medalist.

Antim: She's India's most in-form wrestler. Antim, 19, comes into the Asian Games on the high of winning bronze at the World Championships. Right before that, she defended her World U-20 title. She is India's next-best wrestler in the Vinesh-dominated 53kg category but faces a tough draw: second seed Jasmine Immaeva and then has Japan's Akari Fujinami in the quarters - the 19-year-old two-time World and Asian champion who is on a 100-plus match winning streak.

Who are the big names missing?

The likes of Vinesh, Ravi Dahiya, Sakshi Malik and Anshu Malik will miss out on the Asian Games. Vinesh was injured during training and underwent knee surgery. Olympic silver medallist Ravi lost at the trials, and needed knee surgery as well. Sakshi did not compete at the trials while Sarita Mor and Anshu, both of whom are World cCampionships medallists, also lost in the trials.

What happened at the 2018 Asiad?

Vinesh became the first Indian woman wrestler to win an Asiad gold, while Divya Kakran bagged bronze in the 68kg category. Bajrang was the only male wrestler to win a medal as he clinched gold.

Wait, wasn't the Indian federation suspended?

Yes. The Indians had to compete under a neutral flag at last month's World Championships since the Wrestling Federation of India was suspended by global body United World Wrestling. However, since it was the Indian Olympic Association that submitted the squad for the Asian Games, the wrestlers will be allowed to wear the Indian jersey and compete under the Indian flag.