Only 25 seconds had passed in the final of the Asian Championship when Tsugumi Sakurai, upper body tangled with Anshu Malik’s, mustered all the strength she could to wrench her opponent’s arms and throw her on the mat. Ten seconds later, she caught hold of the Indian’s right ankle.
Then, she executed the armbar – taking hold of Anshu’s arm and twisting it, thus putting immense pressure on her shoulder and elbow. And before Anshu could even realize what was happening, she was pinned. It took just 54 seconds for Sakurai to settle the matter.
Not long enough, perhaps, for Anshu to comprehend what had struck her but good enough to appreciate what awaits her going forward in the 57kg weight class. The 20-year-old from Nidani, Haryana, has so far hardly put a foot wrong.
The silver medal she won on Friday meant Anshu now has medals of all colours in the Asian Championship, having won the gold last year and bronze the year before that. In her maiden appearance at the Worlds last October, she finished runner-up, becoming the first Indian woman to reach the final of the Championship.
Asian Wrestling Championships: Indian Women end their campaign with 5 medals (2 Silver & 3 Bronze):
Silver: Anshu Malik (57kg) & Radhika (65kg)
Bronze: Sarita Mor (59kg), Sushma (55kg) & Manisha (62kg)
PS: In last edition, Indian Women wrestlers won 7 medals (4G, 1S, 2B). pic.twitter.com/Lpc7aCaCa1
— India_AllSports (@India_AllSports) April 22, 2022
At the national level, there’s daylight between her and the rest. In a very quick period, Anshu has grown from being a promising junior to Indian women’s wrestling’s biggest star, leading the contingent in absence of Vinesh Phogat, who hasn’t returned to competitive wrestling after the Tokyo Olympics.
Her rise, however, has been accompanied by an asterisk. Before Friday, a majority of her medals in the senior tournaments came in events that wrestlers from Japan, China and North Korea – the powerhouses in women’s wrestling – had skipped, largely because of the pandemic.
This doesn’t diminish any of her medals, especially since as a rookie she had to often navigate through tricky draws. Friday’s final, however, was a reminder of how tough it will get for Anshu going forward. The Indian, competing in her first international tournament since the Worlds last October, was hardly troubled en route to the final, beating her three opponents – Uzbekistan’s Shokida Akhmedova, Singapore’s Danielle Lim and Bolortuya Khurelkhuu of Mongolia – by technical superiority, that is a difference of 10 points.
Outdone by speed
In the final against Sakurai, a much-anticipated affair between two wrestlers of the same age, Anshu, known for her brute strength, got undone by the Japanese wrestler’s speed. There isn’t any shame in losing to the Japanese, who are considered to be the gold standard in women’s wrestling.
To put their dominance at these Championships in perspective, they won seven out of the 10 gold medals on offer in women’s wrestling. For many of them, who are still in their late teens, this was the maiden appearance at the senior Asian Championship; a frightful prospect for those who will face off against them in the coming years.
In 53kg category for instance, where Phogat competes, 18-year-old Akari Fujinami, the reigning world champion, won the gold medal without conceding even a single point. In 62kg, a category in which Anshu’s close friend and national champion Sonam Malik, who is out injured, usually competes, Nonoka Ozaki blitzed past the field to finish on top of the podium.
One of Ozaki’s scalps was the eventual bronze medalist from India, Manisha, who had qualified after defeating Rio Olympics bronze winner Sakshi Malik in the trials. In Anshu’s case, she was up against a prodigious talent who won the world championship gold last year in the 55kg category.
Sakurai is now trying to displace the legendary Risako Kawai – twice Olympic gold medalist, three-time world champion and four-time Asian champion – from the Japanese team. If anything, this indicates the depth of talent in Japan.
There’s an air of invincibility around them but Anshu’s coach Jagdish Sheoran isn’t too concerned. “Anshu has beaten the Japanese girls in the past, in the junior and cadet events,” he says. “In her mind, they aren’t unbeatable.”
Sheoran talks about one incident four years ago, when Anshu had defeated Japan’s Natami Ruka in the final of the Asian Cadet Championship to underline his point. “After the final, the Japanese girl asked Anshu about her training methods. That shows how good she is,” Sheoran says.
Since winning the World Championship silver last October, Anshu and Sheoran virtually have been living at their akhara inside a sports school in Nidani, spotting every tiny flaw in her game and ironing it out in time for September’s Asian Games.
Sheoran doesn’t give away much about their strategy but says it’s designed to make her an even more attacking wrestler. It took 54 seconds for their plan to unravel on Friday. “But we’ll learn from this and come back stronger at the Asian Games,” Sheoran says.