In the first few days of the Asian Games in China, India has won medals in women’s cricket, rowing, sailing, equestrian dressage and shooting
When the gold medallists for the men’s 10m air rifle team event were beckoned, rather than step on to the podium, Divyansh Singh Panwar, Rudrankksh Patil and Aishwarya Pratap Singh Tomar walked around it and shook hands with their fellow medal winners. This act of sportsmanship was not a first, but it still took their rivals by surprise. Much like the men’s 10m air rifle team event itself.
While Panwar, Patil and Tomar are accomplished shooters, they had yet to make a mark for India at multi-sport events. The trio shot a total of 1893.7 on Monday to bag India’s first gold medal of the 2022 Asian Games, at Hangzhou, China. And they did so in style, breaking the world record of 1893.3 created by China at the World Championships in Baku, Azerbaijan, in August.
“We were focused on our own individual events and we did not plan for the world record,” Patil told official broadcasters, Sony, later. Olympians Tomar and Panwar shot 631.6 and 629.6 respectively, while 19-year-old Patil, the reigning world champion and World No. 8, scored 632.5. Tomar also went on to win a bronze in the individual 10m air rifle event.
Mehuli Ghosh and Ramita compete with the Chinese team.
The first gold was symbolic of India’s traditional might in shooting in multi-sport events. Back in 2008, Abhinav Bindra had won India its first individual gold medal in Olympics when he took the top spot in 10m air rifle at the Beijing Games. India was unable to showcase their talent at last year’s Commonwealth Games as shooting was scrapped from the roster of sports.
At the Asian Games, the shooters were back with a bang. The women’s 10m air rifle team of Ashi Chouksey, Mehuli Ghosh, Ramita opened their account with a silver. In the first two days of the 2022 Asian Games, shooting contributed five medals to India’s tally of 11. And they are far from done yet, with shotgun and pistol events yet to take place.
On Tuesday, sailors Neha Thakur and Eabad Ali won silver and bronze respectively, while the Indian team of Sudipti Hajela, Divyakriti Singh, Hriday Vipul Chheda and Anush Agarwalla won a first-ever gold in equestrian dressage.
India’s first medal in Hangzhou, however, came from a less-celebrated sport. Competing in the men’s lightweight double scull event, Arjun Jat and Arvind Singh crossed the finish line ahead of Uzbekistan to clinch silver. While China won the gold with a timing of 6:23.16, India finished second at 6:28.18. “I think we exceeded expectations by winning the silver,” 27-year-old Singh later said.
The hard-working rowers fit the narrative of India’s humble working-class sports heroes. While Jat, 26, is from Churu district of Rajasthan, Singh is from Khabra village, Uttar Pradesh. Both of them are from farming backgrounds and joined the Indian Army, in 2017, in order to help their struggling families. They were introduced to rowing during their time in Army service. Since they were recruited around the same time, and weighed roughly 72 kg—the ideal weight for lightweight sculls—they were plunked in the same boat. It’s a partnership that has taken them places, as the duo also represented India in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, where they finished 11th.
Arjun Jat and Arvind Singh celebrate winning silver in rowing.
“For the past four years now, we have been working towards the goal of an Asian Games medal,” Jat said. “During the 2018 Asian Games, we were the reserves. That’s when we had vowed that we will compete in this tournament, and hopefully win a medal.”
But Jat and Singh were not the only rowers to shine in Hangzhou. The men’s coxed eight team of Charanjeet Singh, D.U. Pande, Naresh Kalwaniya, Neeraj, Neetesh Kumar, Ashish, Bheem Singh, Jaswinder Singh and Punit Kumar also bagged a silver. India won three bronze medals in rowing as well to equal their previous best medal haul in the sport —India had won five medals in rowing in 2010.
Against the odds
They may not have a medal to show, but the highlight of India’s first few days in Hangzhou was the men’s volleyball team. Over the last few years, the spikers have been in the crossfire between the two factions in the Indian volleyball federations. At the Asian Men’s Volleyball Challenge in July 2023, all of India’s results were counted as ‘forfeits’ as the Indian ad-hoc committee running the federation, “does not allow Indian Men Team to participate this championship”. As a result, India finished last in the 15-team competition.
Despite the odds stacked against them, the Indian volleyball team pulled off sensational wins over higher-ranked teams South Korea and Chinese Taipei at the Asian Games. India rallied from a set down against 2018 silver-medallists Korea to win. Ranked 46 places below their opponents, the Indian team survived a nerve-racking fifth set, where they squandered then saved a match point to top their group. The team then knocked out Chinese Taipei, bronze medallists at the 2018 Asian Games in the Round-of-12.
India’s miracle machine came to shuddering halt against Japan. India suffered a 16-25, 18-25, 17-25 defeat that ended their medal hopes. But the team gave ample lessons in resilience and resourcefulness during their time in Hangzhou.
Nikhat Zareen in action at the Asian Games.
The Indian boxing contingent also made a strong start as world champion Nikhat Zareen and Deepak Bhoria scored dominant wins. In a repeat of the 2023 World Championship final, Zareen took on Nguyen Thi Tam in the Round-of-32 of the women’s 50kg category and secured a 5-0 win. Bhoria, a bronze medallist at the 2023 World Championship, also won his bout against Muhammad Abdul Qaiyum Bin Ariffin by the same scoreline. This edition of the Asian Games hold special importance for boxers as it offers qualifying points for the 2024 Paris Olympics.
Cricket’s golden moment
This is how the Indian women’s cricket team’s performance in the last four major T20 tournaments reads: 2018 T20 World Cup semi-finalists, 2020 T20 World Cup runners-up, 2022 Commonwealth Games runners-up, and 2023 T20 World Cup semi-finalists. Though India had emerged as a powerhouse in women’s cricket in the last few years, they had been unable to get over the final hurdles.
“Every time in big finals, we make the same mistakes again and again [with the bat], that is something we have to improve,” India captain Harmanpreet Kaur had said after the team lost the Commonwealth Games final to Australia.
Smriti Mandhana in action against Sri Lanka.
Kaur may have had a déjà vu moment on Monday, when India crumbled from 89-2 to 116-7 in the Asian Games final against Sri Lanka. Smriti Mandhana (46) and Jemimah Rodrigues (42) were the only Indian batters to record double-figure scores.
Defending a modest total, the Indian bowlers came to the fore, as pacer Titas Sadhu claimed three wickets for six runs in her four overs to guide India to a 19-run win. On their debut at the Asian Games, the Indian women’s cricket team have claimed gold.
Granted the Asian Games isn’t quite as competitive as Commonwealth Games, which features top teams like Australia, England and South Africa. But getting over the line could see them make the mental breakthrough. It was the first golden moment for Indian women’s cricket.
Deepti Patwardhan is a Mumbai-based sportswriter.