After the euphoria of winning a record 101 medals at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi against lesser opponents, India’s athletes face the daunting task of going up against Asia’s top sporting countries in Guangzhou, and maintaining their new-found status as an emerging sporting nation. The fortnight-long 2010 Asian Games in Guangzhou, starting Friday, will be the biggest in history, with nearly 11,700 athletes battling it out in 42 sports. In this melee, even India’s most proven international names find themselves second favourites at best.

Pack leaders: (Clockwise from top left) Mary Kom (Hindustan Times), Pankaj Advani (Shriya Patil Shinde/Mint), Mandeep Kaur (Hindustan Times), Gagan Narang (PTI) and Krishna Poonia (PTI) represent India’s best medal hopes at the Asian Games.

In boxing, where India won three gold and four bronze medals at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi, and which features top pugilists such as world No. 1 Vijender Singh and Asian boxing champion Suranjoy Singh, the field of play will include the world’s top boxing nations. “It would be much harder with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in the competition because they probably produce the best boxers in the world right now," says Vijender. Uzbekistan topped the boxing medals table at the 2006 Asian Games in Doha, but China too has made huge leaps in the sport since then. The Chinese bagged four medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the best result by an Asian country at the event. Suranjoy, however, believes that the Indian performance can only get better.

“The last time we won gold in boxing at the Asian Games was in 1998, when Dingko Singh surprised everyone," Suranjoy says, “and he was the only real contender we had back then. But in this team, every boxer has the potential to win gold, so I’m confident that this will be our best haul ever."

Also See

India’s medal breakdown at the 2006 Asian Games in Doha (PDF)

The Beijing tally (PDF)

National champion Chotte Lal Yadav agrees with Suranjoy. “The attention we got after the Commonwealth Games has only motivated us more," says Yadav, “and for me, it’s an even bigger deal because I was really upset for not qualifying for the (Commonwealth) Games, so I’m not going to let this chance go."

China, which finished at the top of the medals tally at the Beijing Olympics, beating traditional powerhouses such as the US and Russia, are also the strongest team in the sport that is India’s biggest strength—shooting.

The Chinese swept the competition with 27 gold medals at the 2006 Games, compared with India’s three.

“There are no easy medals at the international level and one always looks forward to competing against the world’s best," Olympic champion Abhinav Bindra told AFP, “but India’s shooters have done well in recent years and there is no reason why we can’t do the same at the Asian Games." Compatriot Gagan Narang’s superb form in the last few years, breaking the world record in 10m Air Rifle in 2008, and grabbing four gold medals at the 2010 Commonwealth Games, augurs well for India’s chances.

“Our training for the last one year has been with the Asian Games in mind," says trap shooter Manavjit Singh Sandhu, world No. 3 and 2010 World Cup winner, “and though we did well in the Commonwealth Games, we always had it in our minds that the Asian Games will be our biggest test."

India finished a lowly eighth in the medals tally at the 2006 Games in Doha, despite picking up their best ever haul of 53 medals, including 10 golds. In comparison, China won 166 gold medals, and second-placed South Korea won 58 gold medals, more than India’s entire medal tally.

To add to the imbalance, Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi will not defend their doubles gold (Paes also won the mixed doubles gold with Sania Mirza in Doha), with both players pulling out to concentrate on the world doubles championship. The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) has also decided not to send the Indian cricket team for the inaugural Twenty20 championship at the Games, and wrestling world champion Sushil Kumar has pulled out because of an injury. India’s women wrestlers, though, will look to compensate for Kumar’s absence after winning three golds, two silvers and a bronze medal at the Commonwealth Games. Indian wrestlers also picked up a rich haul at the Greco Roman event in Delhi, and will hope to shine again in Guangzhou.

A slew of sports that were not part of the Commonwealth Games but are on the Asiad agenda will also give India a chance to add to the medal tally. Kabaddi is one such event where India has dominated in the Asian Games. Chess would have been in the pocket as well, if Viswanathan Anand, the current world champion and world No.1, had not withdrawn from the competition. The 2006 Asiad gold medal winner and India’s top-ranked woman chess player, Koneru Humpy, will not be competing either.

India’s billiards team, though, boasts of the best players in the country—Pankaj Advani, 2009 world champion, 2010 Asian champion and 2006 Asiad gold medallist, leads the pack, which also includes veteran cueist and five-time world professional champion Geet Sethi. India will also be the favourites in golf, with Delhi Golf Club’s Rashid Khan going into the competition as Asia’s highest ranked amateur player. “It’s my only chance to win an Asiad medal for the country," says Khan, “because by 2011 I hope to turn pro and join the Asian Tour."

China also enjoy global domination in badminton, and are clear favourites in the sport. But world No. 3 Saina Nehwal brushes that aside. “I’m not worried about the Chinese," she says, “maybe the Chinese are worried about me." Nehwal won the Commonwealth Games gold, and the women’s doubles pair of Jwala Gutta and Ashwini Ponappa added another to the kitty.

“Of course this will be much harder," Nehwal says, “but we are very confident after the Commonwealth Games. Though we should have ideally had more time to recover and practise (after the Commonwealth Games), the whole team is feeling positive. Jwala and Ashwini, or Jwala and Diju’s team (mixed doubles) have also been very consistent over the last few years and they will be medal contenders as well."

Surprisingly, India are also medal favourites in some of the athletics events, despite having a reputation of being wooden spooners in track and field. Mandeep Kaur is the leading contender in the women’s 400m; and the women’s 4x400m team, which includes Kaur, is at its peak after a historic win in the Commonwealth Games. Discus thrower Krishna Poonia, who won gold at the Delhi event as well, also says she is ready for a medal at the Asian level.

“I’ve thrown better than my 61.5 (metre) throw at the (Commonwealth) Games," says Poonia. “I’ve thrown longer distances at practise, I’ve even thrown longer than 63.5, which was the gold medal distance in the last Asiad. So yes, I’m very confident of a medal."

If there’s one Indian athlete who is a safe bet for a gold medal, it’s the diminutive Mary Kom. The five-time world boxing champion (including the 2010 edition) has been unbeatable in her category for a few years now, and expects little competition at the Asian level. “Every tournament is important, and this one is even more special because it’s the first time women’s boxing is part of the Asiad," Kom says, “but for me, this is also another step towards the 2012 Olympics."

The Indian men’s hockey team too will have the Olympics on their mind—the winning team gets automatic entry to the 2012 event. India also face little competition at the Asian level, except for defending champions South Korea and traditional rivals Pakistan. India thrashed their neighbour 7-4 at the Commonwealth Games to enter the semi-final and will look for a repeat of that performance when the two teams meet on 20 November for their group stage match.

“We were the best of the three Asian teams that competed in the Commonwealth Games," captain Rajpal Singh told AFP, referring to Pakistan’s sixth and Malaysia’s eighth finish. With an Olympic berth at stake, India will look to exploit that.