Very rarely do sports fans around the world not go to great lengths to watch the drama of sport and savour the intensity of opponents locked in a battle to the finish... sometimes long after the actual game is over. The dog-eared pages of sporting history are replete with examples of outcomes changing in an instant, driven by the sheer will to overcome the odds. The rawness of contests leaves a lasting impact on fans and audiences.
What happens when an entire sport, lost for decades but deeply rooted in a country’s ethos, rises like a boxer sprawled on the canvas only to score a come-from-behind TKO win? It produces magic and echoes the essence of sporting resurgence and hope. So, when 430 million viewers, second only to the IPL’s viewership of 552 million, tuned in for the inaugural season of a sport that had remained confined to the hinterland for a large part of its existence, it was obvious that a revolution was underway. I have been privileged to watch and witness the transition of India’s very own sport from its roots in the mud to the phenomenon that it is today—on the mat under bright lights with cheering fans thronging stadiums across the country.
REMAKING A LEGEND
How did kabaddi do it? How did it manage to go past more established and haloed sports to zoom through the global ranks into uncharted territory? It’s fair to say that it wasn’t smooth sailing. The prevalent thought was: who in India would tune in to see 14 grown-up men playing an adult version of tag?
Coming from a family that’s been deeply rooted in sports for three generations, I was often ridiculed in my own home for things like watching sports like sepak tekraw (a form of Malaysian kick volleyball) or a random table tennis match from the Asian Games. So, 20 years on, when I heard murmurs of an opening for an English commentator for the new kabaddi league, I was immediately intrigued. The assignment was also turned down by well-known presenters for being “too risky” and “unappealing.” I’m certainly glad I ignored the sceptical voices. But now, after a successful league and a World Cup, I think we know the answer. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the day we first turned up for rehearsals and saw the court light up with the image transmitted to our monitors in the commentary box. “We are on to something here, something truly magnificent,” I told myself. How glad I am that we weren’t wrong.
Then, on July 26, 2014, when the gates opened, no one knew what to expect. But by the end of the night, it was clear that the real heroes were the men on the mat and that the sport was no more just a rural game played by rustic folk. Instead, the game of kabaddi emerged on the cusp of being firmly etched in the country’s sporting history and being embraced by sporting royalty.
On that opening night of the Pro Kabaddi League, the word “game changer” was liberally used to describe the unfolding event. In the span of a couple of hours, kabaddi shed the tag of a rustic sport. “Kabaddi is a perfect example that bridges rural-urban sport. It’s a sport we had all played at some point, but honestly never thought could break out and become so popular. Tried and tested has never been fun to me and even though I was never a sportsperson, the thought of our own sport so high in action and outcome, packing gladiator-style play into 40 minutes, made me feel that it could break through. It’s always been fun being disruptive,” says Ronnie Screwvala, owner of kabbadi team U Mumba.
In many ways, kabaddi remained locked away in some distant corner of our collective mindspace because it carried the tag of a “rural” sport. However, watching the legendary blue and white Argentinian stripes or the green and gold of Australia on a kabaddi mat during the World Cup, merely two years after the first league match, is enough to tell you that a “rural pastime” is now quite clearly an intriguing global phenomenon. It was always the country’s own sport, but suddenly it became apparent that India had something very exciting to offer to world sports.
FIRMING UP THE APPEAL
The explosiveness of kabaddi makes it tailormade for television, especially in a country that loves heavy contact in the sporting arena. The staggering popularity of WWE over the years bears testament to the fact that we enjoy the crashing of bodies in the sporting arena.
Top athletes battling it out with guaranteed action every 30 seconds in a controlled environment means spellbinding action and television is a slave to that. Kabaddi went from the dust bowls of rural India to the international stage accompanied by the glitz and glamour created by the light and sound effects at some of the top venues in the country, while crucial and clever tweaks have helped make the game even more viewer-friendly.
The introduction of a 30-second “raid clock” (where no raid can exceed 30 seconds), the do-or-die raid (every third potential empty raid) and the super tackle (an extra point when three or less defenders make a successful tackle) means that quite often even the television cameras have to play catch up to the action unfolding on the mat.
Then there’s the intrinsic appeal of watching the seven-man lineup swing like a pendulum in a ‘C’ formation as a raider (attacker) approaches and plots his attack. At its heart, kabaddi is very technical, but what exactly do each of them do in their roles and how specific are these roles?
If you watch more than a few games, you will spot a familiar trend—the basic formation from left to right consists of a left corner, left in, left cover, centre, right cover, right in, right corner. Just as each raider possesses a skill set that might include a toe touch, scorpion kick, running hand touch, dubki (dive under the chain) or a jump over the chain, the defenders too possess quite a few arrows in their quiver that can be quite lethal. The two corner defenders are perhaps the most integral cogs in a kabaddi lineup, where constant communication is the key and you’ll often find the closest of friends or men who’ve played together donning these pivotal roles.
Physically, these men need to be nimble-footed as each corner needs to swing around to eat into any available space on court when the raider attacks the opposite corner. Skills you’ll most often find with the corners are the ankle holds or the back and thigh holds, which is all about sensing the slightest opportunity when the raider has his back to the corner while assessing his next move.
Short, strong, stocky and built to stand their ground and stop the raiders in their tracks, these are the two cover defenders. They are the watchdogs of the defence. Just as a raider comes in with a plan to eventually find an escape route to the midline, the cover defenders are men who look out for a brief moment when the raider is lured deep by the corners to get in front and produce a colossal frontal block. Given their low centre of gravity, balance is the key for these men as they stand their ground, move into the raider’s midriff and create a wall of obstruction. The ability to throw in the “Dash” is just as vital to usher a raider off-court when he’s on the turn and looking to use the yellow lobbies to retreat.
The left and right ins are primarily key raiders of the side who, when not attacking in the opposition half, play a strong supporting role, although the risk involved is great as they are in the side more for their raiding prowess and can’t afford to make defensive errors to put themselves on the bench. But alongside the corner defenders, they are an integral part of chain tackles, which are advanced defensive skills used to capture tall and often stronger players who otherwise might appear invincible. The chain’s mechanism includes covering the path of the raider’s movements and then maintaining the hold after the initial capture.
Finally, the centre, who is also one of the primary raiders of the side and perhaps the one that is most protected, when a side is defending an attack from the opposition raider. It’s quite often a combined effort that is required to keep a raider down and these combination tackles where the raiders get involved often prove vital to the outcome of a match. The reliance on defence has increased with each season, and quite often controls the pace of the entire game, and therefore the tournament.
The raiders might be the showstoppers and the crowd pullers, but it’s the men who do the dirty work without the glory who are the biggest assets in any side. Raiders win you games, but the defence wins you titles.
KEEPING IT REAL
If the first step of a televised kabaddi league was about educating the viewers about the basic nuances of the game and getting them excited, the second is all about adding an extra layer to the understanding of the game. It is about creating new heroes out of the men who entertain us with their athleticism. Then, as the interest and intrigue continue to build, fans want to know more about “why” things unfold the way they do, and they want a deeper understanding of why defensive units call the shots and, importantly, want to be the expert sitting on the couch telling the players what to do—that’s when you know you have a winner!
The rules of kabaddi may seem simple, but it takes time to get your head around them, especially since most of us have forgotten them... if we ever played the game. But the growth of kabaddi is as much about the game’s humble ethos and rustic appeal, as it is about commerce and scale.
Screwvala, whose penchant for taking strategic risks is now legendary, says the emotional side is hard to ignore. “Sport for any country is a great binder. It unites people and provides moments that are great for national pride. And then there is the impact a sport has on the people that make the ecosystem. And kabaddi ticks the box—the sport has changed the lives of at least 300 athletes, their careers and their families,” he says.
Unknown athletes such as Anup Kumar, Rahul Chaudhari and Shabeer Bapu, who dwelled on the fringes of Indian sport, had their lives changed forever for the better. Their popularity has leapfrogged many times over.
TAKING IT GLOBAL
While overseas stars such as Jang Kun Lee, Meraj Sheykh, Fazel Atrachali have already given the league an international flavour, the addition of the 2016 Kabaddi World Cup was a true test of how India’s once forgotten sport had been received by the world. The initial murmurs of cynicism that did the rounds about India’s dominance in the sport making a World
Cup win a foregone conclusion, were silenced when South Korea stunned the hosts in the first game of the tournament.
For me, the World Cup was special and the essence of the sport came through when the big-built Polish lads, flaunting their six- and eight-pack midriffs, were annihilated by the pocket-sized dynamos from Thailand. It might have been a David versus Goliath battle, but it served as a perfect myth-buster about the game being all about brute force and strength.
Kabaddi is as much about the mind as it is about physicality—it requires the astute mind of a chess player, the quick feet of a boxer, the evasive skills of a rugby player, and the coordination and understanding of a team sport. “It is the simple nature of the rules of the game, and the fact that it requires virtually no complicated and expensive infrastructure that give kabaddi a real chance for extremely rapid growth in every country where the sport strikes roots. The World Cup featured non-traditional nations from different parts of the globe and it only enhanced the level of visibility and global attention,” said sports commentator Charu Sharma. After talking to the players from Japan, Australia, Iran, England, Poland and Kenya, it becomes amply clear that kabaddi has struck a chord with the people back home. From the videos of my Aussie friends in Adelaide watching games together to a group of Swiss men who gathered every evening at their local pub to watch the matches to tweets coming in from American NFL stars not sure of what they were watching but being unable to turn off the TV, the World Cup hammered home globally.