India’s winning 4: Three fought injuries, fourth is a footballer-turned-sprinter

AFTER 2 minutes and 59.05 seconds on the track at the World Athletics Championships in Budapest on Saturday night, the Indian 4×400 metre relay quartet of Muhammed Anas, Amoj Jacob, Muhammed Ajmal Variyathodi and Rajesh Ramesh became household names.

The unheralded relay squad not only broke the Asian record but also became the first Indian team to reach a World Championship final. The Americans were in the same heat as the Indians. But instead of getting bogged down by the pressure, the Indians ran the race of their lives. On air, commentators were thrilled with the unexpected result and the mighty scare the US got.

The lasting image, though it was just for a fleeting second, was Ramesh overtaking American Justin Robinson in the final leg. Whether they win a medal or not in the final on Sunday night, the viral video has joined the list of iconic moments in Indian sport. In fact, Robinson had to nudge back Ramesh who was snapping at his heels.

“Since 2016, we were expected to run 2:59 but it never happened. It happened today,” Anas told reporters in the mixed zone, minutes after the team hugged on the track when the time flashed on the big screen.

Their coach, Jamaican Jason Dawson, had given them a simple but tough target — stay just behind the lead runner, Jacob said. “I was focusing on the US guy. I had to be with him. Our coach had said whoever is first, you have to be behind him,” he added.

Freedom Sale

All four runners were out to prove a point. The 4×400 metre relay squad, one of the stronger teams at the Asian level, hasn’t enjoyed success recently. There was no medal at the Commonwealth Games, they did not qualify for the final at last year’s World Championship, and they didn’t win the gold at the recent Asian Championship. But they tore apart the form book in Budapest on the biggest night for Indian relay on a global stage.

While Ramesh, from Tamil Nadu, is the youngest at 23, Anas, from Kerala, is the oldest at 28. Anas, an Asian Games silver medalist in the 400 metres, had been written off after loss of form and injuries.

Ramesh’s career has been a rollercoaster. He participated in the 2018 U20 World Championship but faded away. Injuries, work commitments – he worked full-time as a ticket collector at the Trichy railway station – and Covid-19 nearly ended his career in 2020.

Since the 2018 Commonwealth Games, Jacob, 25, originally from Kerala but raised in Delhi, was troubled with injuries. At one point, he contemplated quitting the sport.

Ajmal, also 25, from Palakkad in Kerala, is a footballer-turned-100m sprinter, who switched to the one-lapper just two years ago. He has dreams of winning a major medal via the relay route.

Anas’s gold in the 400m individual event at the Bhubaneswar Interstate Meet in June marked his comeback. “After Covid, I had an injury from the Tokyo Olympics. I have recovered now and come back to form. I feel so good,” he said.

Saturday night was redemption for Jacob, his father, P A Jacob, said. “He was really frustrated. He was working very hard but the results were not showing. He has gone through some difficult times. But now, he has found an excellent team and is doing well. I am so pleased with the way he has progressed,” he said.

After the heats, Jacob, who ran the fastest split, boldly proclaimed that they would go after a medal in the finals. “We are coming,” he said.

National coach Premanand Jayakumar, who works alongside Dawson, worked closely with the men’s team at the national camp in Thiruvananthapuram. Although he did not travel to Budapest, he was glued to the television. When a mental barrier – sub-3 minutes — was broken, he was ecstatic.

“Chasing down the Americans was a race plan. We did not care if our opponent was from the US or even a divine being. Coach Dawson’s plan was to fight it out. When I watched Rajesh push the American, I felt so proud. At that moment, I felt that India is surely coming up in athletics. We are very close to the global level. It was a historic moment,” Jayakumar said.

“Everyone in the team ran as per Coach Dawson’s plan. We were astonished but glad to see that everyone played their role to perfection,” Jayakumar said.

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What also worked for the team was that they got time to acclimatise. Although most of the pre-Worlds training took place in Thiruvananthapuram, the Athletics Federation of India decided to send the relay team 20 days in advance to Budapest. “It was like a foreign exposure training for us. We could acclimatise well, and that is one of the reasons we have performed well. Also, since the boys did not have any individual events, we had fresh legs,” Jayakumar said.

After the race, Ramesh was so exhausted that he needed assistance to get off the track. “I was shouting ‘you die but let us reach the final’,” Jacob said later.

And Ramesh did give it his all to make it a memorable night for India.

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