Growing in popularity

U Mumba's Shabeer Bapu Sharafudheen (centre) was the star performer during the first leg of the Pro Kabaddi League.-U Mumba's Shabeer Bapu Sharafudheen (centre) was the star performer during the first leg of the Pro Kabaddi League.

Shabeer Bapu Sharafudheen, one of the star players for U Mumba alongside captain Anup Kumar, is the son of an auto driver from Ummini, situated in the Palakkad district of Kerala. Shabeer, brought up in the Railway Colony there, left home as a 17-year-old, with sister Shabana, to learn kabaddi and now the game has made him a celebrity in his home district. By Nandakumar Marar.

Players, buoyed by the presence of celebrities, came up with action-packed performances during the first leg of the Pro Kabaddi League in Mumbai. Shabeer Bapu Sharafudheen, playing for the local unit, U Mumba, was the standout performer, picking up two ‘best raider’ trophies, getting richer by Rs. 10,000 each time.

The India camper, however, had even better moments off the field, meeting Bollywood icon Aamir Khan. “I talked kabaddi with him and he appreciated the effort I put in,” said the Bengaluru-based, Palakkad-born player, who loves watching movies when he is not training. “I enjoy films of any type, so meeting the actors was exciting. I clicked pictures with most of them,” said the 27-year-old employee of the State Bank of Mysore.

U Mumba defeated Jaipur Pink Panthers in the event opener, with the Bachchan family occupying courtside seats at the National Sports Club of India indoor complex to support the Panthers, which is co-owned by Abhishek Bachchan. Sachin Tendulkar, invited by the latter for the inauguration, remembered playing the sport as a schoolboy and expressed his admiration about the fitness level of the players. “Incredible agility, speed, awareness are extremely important (in kabaddi). I played this sport at school and it is fantastic to come here and support it.”

Aamir remarked: “I used to play kabaddi in my childhood. It is an amazing game and is totally Indian.”

Shabeer, one of the star players for U Mumba alongside captain Anup Kumar, is the son of an auto driver from Ummini, situated in the Palakkad district of Kerala. Shabeer, brought up in the Railway Colony there, left home as a 17-year-old, with sister Shabana, to learn kabaddi and now the game has made him a celebrity in his home district.

“My Facebook (page) is filled with messages from people I don’t know. Relatives and close friends call up to confirm match timings. I have been playing all-India tournaments for many years but this interest for the sport is new to me,” he said.

Shabeer was listed in ‘A’ category during the PKL players’ auction. “U Mumba bid Rs 10.6 lakh for me. I am among the national campers,” said the raider, who is hoping to strengthen his case for Asian Games selection by doing well for the franchisee.

He is on a two-year contract with the Mumbai outfit and has already received a portion of the bid amount with the promise of receiving the remaining sum a week after the end of the tournament. Five-star stay is another novelty for these players and Shabeer said: “I played in Mumbai three times earlier but this is the first time that I am using such facilities.”

Charting his rise, he recalled: “Shanmugham Sir, who coached us in school days, told us about a trial in Chennai by the Sports Authority of India and took us there.” Both the siblings got selected, spending the next two years at the hostel. “We were strangers in a new city, forced to learn a new language and longed for home,” he added.

Asked about the reaction of his parents, he said: “Conditions at home were tough. But two of us away meant fewer mouths to feed, so they agreed reluctantly.” Sport opened many doors, starting with admission to the well-known Pachaiyappa’s College for BA (History) and then a spot in the Services team.

The U Mumba raider is quick to express his gratitude to his coaches, Shanmugham, Vijayan and E. Bhaskaran, who gave him the opportunity to represent Services at the senior level.

Now the national women team’s coach, Baskaran, who was present in Mumbai, said: “Shabeer took the chances he got. Like him, there are more talents waiting to be discovered.”