Mary Kom v Nikhat Zareen. Manika Batra v the Table-Tennis Federation of India. Amit Panghal (and others) v the Boxing Federation of India. Not the most famous contests in Indian sporting history but they are inevitable - especially in the run-up to a big event like the Asian Games. These examples have one thing in common: They are all disputes over the selection process to represent India at these big events.
The system can vary from sport to sport, is often confusing and in many cases subjective.
Team sports are usually the simplest (though not without controversy): Squad selection depends on the national team selectors and federation. It's often the individual sport that gives rise to questions and sometimes chaos.
Here's a look at the how the squads for the major events in the upcoming Asian Games are selected:
For the Asian Games, HS Prannoy, PV Sindhu, Chirag Shetty-Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Treesa Jolly-Gayatri Gopichand were given direct entries courtesy of being in the top 20 of the BWF rankings as of April 18, 2023. Trials were held for the remaining 14 spots in the squad in May, where a big 'upset' was Kidambi Srikanth beating Lakshya Sen. The latter has since hit form on the BWF tour while the former has suffered.
Last year, Prannoy was out of India's Commonwealth Games (CWG) squad, where only rankings were used and two men's singles players had direct entries.
Simply put, it's done via the Moving Average Method (MAM), which basically means the best four of the last five scores not older than 180 days. This includes international competitions and national selection trials and other competitions for the top-ranked shooters, i.e. the average score of their most-recent shooting performances. That's how Saurabh Chaudhary, who announced himself to the world with a stunning gold aged 16 at the 2018 Asian Games, will be missing out this year.
The wrestling selection trials usually begin on the mat and end up in the courts. As per the WFI rulebook, trials are to be held "once in 3-4 months" but in practice, trials are usually held less than two months before competitions. This puts the wrestlers in a tough position because they have to cut weight for the trials, recover from the weight cut, and then repeat the process before the big event.
However, different events have different selection criteria. Selection trials are compulsory for the Commonwealth and Asian Games but for the Asian Games, the selection committee has the discretion to select "iconic players" such as Olympic medallists or World Championship medallists. This is what led to court cases last month when Vinesh Phogat [now injured] and Bajrang Punia were awarded places in the Indian team without a trial.
When it comes to the Olympics, the wrestler who wins the quota may not necessarily get the berth since the quota belongs to the country. Hence, the selection committee has the power to conduct a trial if needed.
Boxing's selection criteria are very straightforward: the top-three boxers in every weight category are included in the Elite Team Evaluation and Selection Camp and the best-performing boxer goes through. It's a big change from the earlier system, where trials were held to choose the Indian team for major competitions.
However, like wrestling, there is one caveat: boxers who have won gold or silver at the World Championships will be automatically chosen for the Asian Games. That meant Nikhat Zareen and Lovlina Borgohain, both of whom won gold at the World Championships this year, made the Indian team. On the other hand, Amit Panghal, the only Indian boxer to win gold at the 2018 Asian Games, was ousted by Deepak Bhoria owing to the latter's consistent show in the camps.
The selection trials for athletics are simple, but tricky at the same time. The Athletics Federation of India (AFI) sets "Qualifying Guidelines" for the Asian Games and Commonwealth Games and only those who achieve the pre-set standards are eligible for selection. Even if an athlete goes past the AFI's mark, he can be replaced by another athlete if the selection committee deems fit.
The selection committee also has the power to ask any athlete, who has achieved the qualification mark, to give a trial, as they did with Jeswin Aldrin before the World Championships last year.
Athletes qualify for the World Championships and the Olympics by achieving the qualification standards set by the organizers of these two events or via world rankings.
Table Tennis is yet another sport that has seen players seeking legal recourse over selection questions. Notably, ahead of the 2022 Commonwealth Games, a number of players filed petitions after not being picked in India's squad, with Diya Chitale then replacing Archana Kamath in the squad. The confusion arose over the then selection policy which gave 50% weightage to the domestic ranking and only 30% to international with 20% to selectors' discretion.
The court-appointed Committee of Administrators running the Table Tennis Federation of India went on to change the policy. The new version gives 40% weightage to international and domestic ranking each while 20% to selectors' discretion. For doubles, players must be ranked in top 12 to play international tournaments.
There was heartbreak here for Harmeet Desai, who became India No 1 after the deadline for Asian Games team submission had passed - which meant he missed out on the singles spots in the squad.
The Archery Association of India has changed their selection policy to an annual process which begins at the start of the year with an open selection trial. For instance, at the start of 2023 the first leg of the open archery selection trials for the Asian Games, World Championships and World Cups was held in January.
The shortlisted top 16 then played each other in round-robin matches to decide the top-eight. The 8 were split into two teams: The top four from each category (men's recurve, women's recurve, men's compound and women's compound) made the Indian team while those who finished between the fifth and eighth were reserves and could get a chance in case of 'non-performance' by the top 4.
Deepika Kumari, India's most decorated recurve archer, came back from her maternity break and reached the top 16 in the first leg, but couldn't make the top 8.
If ever there were purely meritorious trials, E-Sports can come the closest to making that claim. The E-Sports Federation of India (ESFI) conducted trials that were open to the public, free to enter and participate in five E-Sports titles: DOTA2, Hearthstone, FIFA22, Street Fighter V and League of Legends. The National E-Sports Championships (NESC 22) took place in a double elimination format (where a contestant would be required to lose twice to be eliminated) and the winners and runners-up were selected to be part of the contingent to the Asian Games.
With none of the E-Sports titles subject to qualitative rulings by judges, and a live-streamed championship viewable to all, there was only quantifiable merit to consider. There were no affordances offered to previous medal winners, with Tirth Mehta, a bronze medallist in Hearthstone from the 2018 Asian Games (where E-Sports were a demonstration event) missing out during NESC 22.