Bajrang Punia snatched the spotlight from fading superstar Sushil Kumar to open India’s gold account at the 18th Asian Games after the shooters delivered just a bronze in a low-key start to their campaign on Sunday.
An in-form Bajrang won his maiden Asian Games gold in the 65kg category but a rusty Sushil lost his last chance to add an Asiad yellow metal to his rich collection after losing the qualification bout 3-5 to Bahrain’s Adam Batirov in the 74 kg category.
Bajrang gave India the first gold of the Games in Jakarta but the country’s first medal came 600 kilometers away in Palembang, where the mixed rifle team of Apurvi Chandela and Ravi Kumar faltered towards the end to settle for bronze.
Like wrestling, shooting was also a mixed bag as the bronze came after teen sensation Manu Bhaker and Abhishek Verma failed to qualify for the pistol mixed team finals against expectations.
The hockey turf in Jakarta also produced a brilliant result for India with the women’s team, which won a bronze in 2014, hammering hosts Indonesia 8-0 for a rousing start. Drag-flicker Gurjit Kaur was the star of the show with a hat-trick.
But the day well and truly belonged to Bajrang, who came into the Games after winning three tournaments — the Commonwealth Games, the Tbilisi Grand Prix, and the Yasar Dogu International. He was simply sensational and produced a performance which had been expected of him in the build-up to the Games.
Such was his domination that the 24-year-old from Haryana won all his bouts, until the final, by technical superiority.
He outclassed Uzbekistan’s Sirojiddin Khasanov (13-3), Tajikistan’s Fayziev Abdulqosim (12-2) and Mongolia’s N Batmagnai Batchuluu (10-0) to storm into the gold medal bout.
In the final, he was tested by Japan’s Takatani Daichi but the Haryana grappler held his nerve to prevail 10-8 in an exciting battle.
With this stellar feat, Bajrang emulated his mentor Yogeshwar Dutt, who had won gold in the last edition. Kartar Singh (1978, 1986), Satpal Singh (1982), Rajinder Singh (1978), Changdi Ram (1970) and Maruti Mane (1962) are the other wrestlers who form India’s golden club at Asiad.
“There are very few gold for Indian wrestlers in Asiad. So it is a big achievement for me. Only Yogeshwar and Rajinder Singh have won two gold medals in a year (CWG and Asiad), I am only the third to do it, so naturally, I am feeling proud of myself,” the 24-year-old said.
Another name that was set to be on this list was of Sushil but the double Olympic medallist could not produce the big-event show he is famous for. However, he was graceful in defeat.
“I did not expect this. The 57kg World Champion was sitting beside me, he said ‘I lost’. I told him don’t worry, I have also lost. It is part of sport and I will come back again. We can’t be overwhelmed by defeats or victories, it won’t lead you anywhere,” said Sushil.
A gold was also expected from the Jakabaring Shooting Range in Palembang, where the Indians were in contention in two events, but the contingent had to be content with a mixed team rifle bronze.
The Indian pairing of Chandela and Kumar aggregated 429.9 after 42 shots in the 48-shot final and were in second spot for major part of the 48-shot finals before China overtook them to take the silver.
It was a maiden Asian Games medal for Chandela, who will be aiming for a better colour medal in the 10m air rifle tomorrow. World Cup bronze medallist Kumar, who is mentored by the great Abhinav Bindra, had won a men’s 10m rifle team bronze at last the edition at Incheon.
There were no more medals on the opening day but they were certainly some promising results.
Indian swimmers Sajan Prakash and Srihari Nataraj finished creditable fifth and seventh respectively in the men’s 200m butterfly and 100m backstroke events.
In rowing, medal hopes were raised after Om Prakash and Sawarn Singh topped Heat 2 in men’s doubles sculls while Dattu Baban Bhokanal was second in Heat 1 of singles sculls.
It was a lean day in tennis with most Indians getting first-round byes. There was one match in the mixed doubles and last-minute formed pairing of Karman Kaur Thandi and Divij Sharan did well to clear the opening hurdle.
The Indian badminton team, led by Kidambi Srikanth, made a resounding start to its campaign, thrashing minnows Maldives 3-0 in the opening match of the team competition.
World No 8. Srikanth brushed aside Maldives’ Hussein Zayan Shaheed Zaki 21-4 21-5 to give India a 1-0 lead. World No. 11 H S Prannoy then outclassed Mohamed Sarim 21-8 21-6.
B Sai Praneeth, who had clinched the 2017 Singapore Open, then ended the challenge of Mohamed Ajfan Rasheed with a 21-7 21-8 demolition as India wrapped up the contest 3-0.
In Kabaddi, which has been India’s ‘gold mine’ at Asian Games, both teams made a winning start. The men’s team outclassed Sri Lanka after opening its campaign with a win over Bangladesh, while the women’s team pulled off a dominating win over Japan in its opener.