Pro Kabaddi League faces uncertain future amid Covid-19 mayhem

With the coronavirus pandemic wreaking havoc globally, the immediate future of the Pro Kabaddi League looks bleak.

Bengal Warriors won a thrilling final against Dabang Delhi to clinch its first PKL title in 2019.   -  Vijay Soneji

August should have been a busy month for kabaddi. The season would have begun in July with the sport’s biggest contest, the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL), featuring 12 teams. The players would have by now fine-tuned their skills during their pre-season camps that usually get underway in May, and the coaches would have chalked out winning routines and strategies to conquer the league.

As Manpreet Singh, coach of Gujarat FortuneGiants, says, “Ab tak saare zero bhi hero ban gaye hote (By this time, even the losers would have become top players).”

But things haven’t quite gone as per schedule. The last kabaddi tournament held in India was the senior nationals in March. With the coronavirus pandemic wreaking havoc globally, the immediate future of the league looks bleak. Considering that kabaddi is a complete contact sport, it’s a no-brainer that it isn’t likely to be among the first sports to make a comeback. This, despite kabaddi being the nation’s second-most-watched sport on TV after cricket.

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“Kabaddi is a body contact game. Cricket does not have a lot of body contact, and contact in football also is minimal, but kabaddi is a full-contact sport. In each raid, you see a raider being taken out by six to seven defenders. Given the nature of the sport, I feel it will be tough to resume the game by the end of the year,” says Manpreet, who has steered Gujarat FortuneGiants to two finals in three seasons in his first coaching role.

Jaan hai dost, kaun panga lega? (Life is valuable, who will want to risk it?)” he adds in his usual witty parlance.

Former India captain Ajay Thakur (left) has donned the police uniform in the fight against coronavirus.   -  R. V. Moorthy

 

Bio-bubble concept a ray of hope

The “bio-bubble” concept, which was implemented in the cricket Test series between the West Indies and England that began with the first match in Southampton on July 8, seems the likely way forward for kabaddi, too. The concept essentially keeps the players and the support staff in a secure environment and restricts their interaction with the outside world in an attempt to shield them from being exposed to the coronavirus.

Taking a cue from this, experts have suggested that the PKL, which is usually a 12-city affair, might be held in one or two cities. The players will have to undergo a 15-day quarantine period before the league begins and will remain in the bio-bubble throughout. The stadiums and mats will be regularly sanitised after each practice session or game.

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Deepak Hooda, who was made captain of the national team last year, is optimistic that the PKL will take place if other sports resume. “If other sporting events start, kabaddi will definitely be in the fray,” he says.

However, while cricket has banned the use of saliva to restrict the spread of germs and the risk of infection, Hooda feels there is little scope to introduce such changes in kabaddi.

“There aren’t a lot of things we can change. We are used to playing with our hands, so wearing gloves will feel very different and it will also make it difficult for us to know if we get a touch on someone. Wearing a mask while playing will also be difficult to implement because it will make it very hard for us to breathe,” he says.

Fazel Atrachali (right) and Mohammad Esmaeil Nabibakhsh, of Iran, were the top foreign players last season, but most teams feature only one or two imports in their starting seven.   -  Special Arrangement

 

A matter of fitness

Kabaddi is among the most physically taxing sport. Players are expected to possess rubber band-like flexibility, cat-like agility, hawk-like vision and cheetah-like reflexes.

To return to the kabaddi mat after over four months (and counting) will be no easy feat, feels Pawan Kumar Sehrawat, the league’s most prolific raider over the last two seasons.

“The players will need at least 15 to 20 days to train and regain full fitness once the schedule is announced. Those who have been working on their fitness during this time will be able to come back sooner, so it solely depends on an individual’s fitness levels,” he says.

Pawan — who holds the record for the most points scored in a PKL match at 39 — is perhaps the first professional player to resume playing. “I began training outdoors around two weeks ago. It feels good to get back to the sport. I’ve started slowly and am slowly gaining some momentum,” he says.

He adds: “I train with a select group of players and a maximum of eight of us train per session.” His PKL teammate Mohit Sehrawat also trains with him.

Hooda, who led India to the gold medal at the 2019 South Asian Games, has devoted time to moulding himself into a shredded muscleman. Training alongside ace Indian boxer Saweety Boora, he looks in remarkable shape.

“The off season is meant for us to train and prepare for the upcoming season and doesn’t mean we stop training. I have always been conscious about fitness and need to ensure that I am fit to play when the lockdown ends,” he says.

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Former India captain Ajay Thakur, who is employed as a deputy superintendent of police in Himachal Pradesh, has donned the police uniform in the fight against coronavirus. Despite his hectic schedule, which sees him work at least six days a week, the Padma Shri awardee says he “manages to squeeze in workouts twice a day to ensure he remains fit.”

Dharmaraj Cheralathan, the league’s oldest player at 45, has resorted to working out at home for now. Cheralathan, who works for Indian Railways, has been on duty in Hyderabad since the end of May, alongside fellow PKL star Siddhart Desai. “I kept myself fit by working in the farm and training outdoors when I was back home in Thanjavur, but since I have come to Hyderabad, I have been doing basic workouts at home,” he says.

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Absence of foreigners to have little impact

The fact that the PKL’s dependence on foreign players is less than cricket’s Indian Premier League (IPL) and football’s Indian Super League, the two other popular franchise-based leagues in the country, could work in its favour. Fazel Atrachali and Mohammad Esmaeil Nabibakhsh, of Iran, were the top foreigner players last season, but most teams feature only one or two imports in their starting seven. This factor could work in the PKL’s favour as the league can be an all-Indian affair, opine experts.

When asked if the league will be less competitive in the absence of foreigners, Pawan says, “It won’t make a vast difference because there are only a few foreigners who are top players. The league will certainly remain competitive even if they cannot play.”

The kabaddi stars are staring at uncertainty as the nation continues to grapple with the coronavirus. While the IPL has shifted to the United Arab Emirates, it is highly unlikely that PKL will be shipped to foreign shores. Whether the league will happen in the coming months is anybody’s guess, but the players remain optimistic, one gruelling workout at a time.