Kabaddi: Promotion is the key

While the Indian team was the cynosure, the third World Cup gave exposure to a number of national teams like Australia, the United States of America and Kenya. The Asian teams, Republic of Korea, Iran, Japan, Bangladesh and Thailand, showed they have the wherewithal to advance and pose a challenge to India in the future at least in the continental games.

Indian players break into a jive after defeating Iran in the final of the World Cup in Ahmedabad.   -  Vijay Soneji

India's captain Anup Kumar (bottom) vies with Iran's players during the finals of the Kabaddi World Cup.   -  AFP

It was the morning after the men in blue had competed in the final of the World Cup — promoted with the catch-line, ‘Ready to Raid’— with terrific passion and fierce determination to become the undisputed champions. A handful of players from the Indian team were taking the first flight out of Ahmedabad, the venue of the World Cup. Skipper Anup Kumar, Nitin Tomar and Surjeet looked bleary-eyed; the team must have celebrated its victory well into the wee hours. The Indian kabaddi players — seen live in action, thanks to Star Sports, which broadcast all the 33 matches of the World Cup — have to some extent become visible in public; at least a few people recognised Anup Kumar and requested him for selfies, which the player readily obliged. However, it was not the case with Tomar, who had played a big part by winning super raid points as a substitute, or the confident defender Surjeet.

The scene at Ahmedabad’s domestic airport, nevertheless, was a far cry from what one might imagine it would be if the Indian cricket team were there. None of the kabaddi players was mobbed. The players just stood in the queue when the traffic officer of Jet Air reminded Anup Kumar that boarding for New Delhi had already commenced.

Though there was no cash prize for winning the World Cup, the happiness among the three members of the World Cup-winning Indian team was palpable. The scene at the departure lounge of the airport, however, did not reflect the belief held by many that post ProKabaddi League (PKL) India’s kabaddi players are modern sports heroes. What an irony that Anup Kumar had ended his post World Cup final press conference, saying: “Now we will be recognised as World Champions.”

Only a month ago or so, the captain of the 1983 Prudential World Cup-winning Indian team, Kapil Dev, had exhorted Anup Kumar and his team to play with “Dil se” and not bother about the results, at the unveiling of the Indian team’s jersey. Sure enough, the Indian team, coached by the very animated Balwan Singh and calm and cool K. Baskaran, displayed adequate skills, boundless energy and tactics, and swathed themselves with glory in the presence of a partisan crowd. Raider Ajay Thakur — of Himachal Pradesh, Bengaluru Bulls and Puneri Paltan — put up a match-winning performance.

The Indian team, which had also won the World Cup in 2004 and 2007, proved that other countries like Iran, Republic of Korea and Bangladesh are still some way off from challenging its supremacy. Iran put up an electrifying display but could not stack up points only through the individual brilliance of raider and captain Meraj Sheykh or ace defender Fazel Atrachali. Kabaddi is a unique game, wherein action is swift during the course of two 20-minute sessions, and the players cannot take their eyes off the game. The players have to win raid or tackle points within 30 seconds.

Trailing at half time against Iran, the Indians turned the match around by changing players and even keeping a smart defender like Manjit Chillar out of action.

While the Indian team was the cynosure, the third World Cup gave exposure to a number of national teams like Australia, the United States of America and Kenya. The Asian teams, Republic of Korea, Iran, Japan, Bangladesh and Thailand, showed they have the wherewithal to advance and pose a challenge to India in the future at least in the continental games.

Sheykh, made a lot of sense while replying to a question if kabaddi has become popular to gain entry into the Olympics. “Yes, it can become an Olympic sport, but other countries should start promoting the game like India does,” said the Iran captain, who has taken part in the last three editions of the PKL.

It was quite evident from the 12-team World Cup that only India, Iran, Republic of Korea and Bangladesh had prepared well. The Australian team, coached by the Asian Games gold medal winner, Navneet Gautam, was formed in Melbourne only some six weeks before the tournament. The team, comprising retired Australian Rules Football (AFL) and Rugby players, underwent a crash course. They were clueless with the fundamentals of the game. The Australian captain Campbell Brown said the training they underwent at home and what they saw in India was like chalk and cheese. The Aussies still pulled off an upset of sorts against Argentina.

Kabaddi is supposed to have been introduced in Argentina in 1999, but “people still ask, where is the ball,” said Ricardo Acuna, the coach of the South American nation.

The United States team, a gathering of players initiated by manager Celestine Jones, was routed in all its five league matches. The U.S. team, led by Troy Bacon, was what is known in cricketing parlance as ‘rag, tag and bobtail.’

Four players from other teams who caught the attention were England all-rounder Tope Adelwalure, Kenya’s David Mosambayi, Poland’s Michal Spiczko and Thailand’s Khomsan Thongkham. Adelwalure should be part of the next PKL; he has done enough to impress the talent scouts of the eight franchises.

It was the first World Cup after the launch of the PKL, and with all the publicity surrounding it, there was immense pressure on the Indian team to win the title. Indeed, Anup Kumar’s band of ambitious players was much relieved that things did not go wrong in the final.

“We play for the nation and we are proud of it. It doesn’t matter whether the government rewards us or not. We dedicate this win to the Indian soldiers who lost their life at Uri,” said coach Balwan Singh.

The World Cup also witnessed some countries like Australia and the U.S. participating despite not having a national association. Troy Bacon of the U.S. and Campbell Brown of Australia said that forming a national association would be the first thing that they would look into on returning home. The United States and Argentina may even consider putting in place a Pan-American kabaddi competition and they look to India and the IKF to assist them.

Kabaddi has now come into the mainstream of Indian sport.

That is quite a change considering the fact that some people scoff at the mere mention of certain sports.

Mashal Sports and Star Sports have taken kabaddi to a different level, and as Anup Kumar said, a biennial World Cup would go a long way in making the sport popular, eventually paving the way for its entry into the Olympics.