Kabaddi — Has India lost its mojo?

The loss of India’s Asian Games stronghold on kabaddi has raised a fierce debate over the country’s stature in the sport and the role the PKL has played in foreign players’ improvement. The latter might be true, but the country’s players aren’t too worried.

The Pro Kabaddi League, first held in 2014, has served as a platform for international players to showcase their talent and further hone their skills alongside India’s best.   -  Getty Images

India’s losses to Iran and South Korea at the 2018 Asian Games have ignited a new debate: Have the dynamics of the kabaddi world changed, and has India’s hegemony over the sport come to an end?

Traditionally, Iran and South Korea aren’t kabaddi-playing nations, but the former defeated India in the men’s semifinals and women’s final, and the latter’s men’s team beat India in the group stage. Iran picked up kabaddi around 20 years ago, but the South Koreans are relatively new to the sport, having made their Asian Games debut in 2010 – and they beat the country that had won every gold in kabaddi since the sport was introduced at the continental meet.

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How did such countries, with barely any exposure to the game, come to the fore? A large chunk of credit must be given to their participation in the Pro Kabaddi League, which enters its sixth season this year. First held in 2014, the PKL has served as a platform for international players to showcase their talent and further hone their skills alongside India’s best.

“After our Asian Games gold medal win, the sport has become a lot more popular [in Iran]. It’s still new, but it is much better known than it was five years ago,” said Fazel Atrachali, the most popular foreign player in the league. The five years that he mentions is in line with the launch of the PKL.

To underline that point, his compatriot Hadi Tajik, who plays for U Mumba, remarked, “In Iran, there are only three good teams. So, the league and competitions are on a much smaller scale as opposed to the PKL with 12 teams."

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Atrachali is one of PKL’s most successful players, having made three finals in four seasons. He was part of the title-winning U Mumba in Season 2 and was the leading defender in Season 4 when he guided Patna Pirates to the title. He then switched to Gujarat Fortunegiants in Season 5 and formed a formidable partnership with compatriot Abozar Mighani in defence. He picked up 57 points and captained the side in the final in its debut season, where it lost to the Pirates. In the auction before Season 6, Atrachali became the most expensive foreign player when U Mumba brought him back for ₹1 crore.

Mighani, meanwhile, joined the PKL fold only in Season 5, but emerged as the side’s best defender with 65 points. This year, the 29-year-old was signed by the Telugu Titans for ₹76 lakh.

That the league has helped the foreigners learn and improve is a point that multiple Indian players make.

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“We have a South Korean player [Young Chang Ko] who was part of the team that defeated us at the Asian Games and there are others in opposition teams as well. The foreign players were always good and have become better after playing with us at the PKL,” said Deepak Niwas Hooda, who was picked up by Jaipur Pink Panthers for ₹1.15 crore in the auction.

“It’s been four years since the PKL started and no one knew who Jang-kun Lee [of the Bengal Warriors] or Fazel was before the league began. They have played here and have enhanced their skills and it has helped them grow,” said defender Sukesh Hegde, who played alongside Atrachali and Mighani at the Fortunegiants last season.

“Such a long tournament gives us a chance to play against each other and develop our game. We are strong in technique and they (the foreigner players) have better fitness. We have an opportunity to exchange knowledge and it’s a good thing,” said Manjeet Chillar, the veteran India defender and two-time Asian Games gold medallist. But there’s more to be read into the responses from the Indian players to the threat from other countries.

“We study and analyse their game and identify their strengths. For example, we know Fazel’s ankle hold is strong and that Abozar’s front dash is good. We do our homework, but it’s useful only if the situation arises in the match. We can’t go in with a set plan.”

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“It’s not that because we lost at the Asian Games that we have to prove ourselves in the PKL. That is a different event and we can redeem ourselves only at such a level. To play for the country and a league is completely different. There is a lot of pressure while playing for the country, but not so much while playing for a club.”

“Ups and downs keep happening. We can’t win every match. Other nations are giving competition but we have worked hard now. It’s good for the sport and there is healthy competition.”

The responses indicate the Indians are still confident. With little kabaddi to be played outside the Asian Games and the PKL, the opportunities for other countries to gain ground on the birthplace of the game is sorely limited.