Ultimate Kho Kho — Welcome revival or departure from roots?

Ultimate Kho Kho has transformed kho kho into an edge-of-the-seat, made-for-television extravaganza. For over three weeks at the Balewadi Stadium in Pune, the sport enjoyed a degree of spotlight it may have rarely experienced before. But has it lost its essence?

A grand start: Members of the Odisha Juggernauts team with the trophy after emerging as the champion in the first season.
The Juggernauts beat Telugu Yoddhas in the final. The winning team pocketed a prize money of ₹1 crore.

A grand start: Members of the Odisha Juggernauts team with the trophy after emerging as the champion in the first season. The Juggernauts beat Telugu Yoddhas in the final. The winning team pocketed a prize money of ₹1 crore. | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Ultimate Kho Kho has transformed kho kho into an edge-of-the-seat, made-for-television extravaganza. For over three weeks at the Balewadi Stadium in Pune, the sport enjoyed a degree of spotlight it may have rarely experienced before. But has it lost its essence?

A solitary point, won with only seven seconds remaining on the clock, separated Odisha Juggernauts from Telugu Yoddhas in the final of Ultimate Kho Kho (UKK).

The nail-biting final justified its billing as an edge-of-the-seat, made-for-television extravaganza. For over three weeks at the Balewadi Stadium in Pune, kho kho enjoyed a degree of spotlight it may have rarely experienced before.

“Our philosophy has always been that it is first a television product. The idea was to package it as a one-hour appointment viewing, competing against news, movies, and entertainment channels,” says Tenzing Niyogi, the CEO and League Commissioner of UKK. That explains the rule tweaks, the elevated difficulty levels, the drama created consciously around the blink-and-you-miss-it nature of the sport, and technological innovations such as the use of the spider camera, which found use in indoor sports for the first time in India. The purpose is to add life to a sport with coloured kits and shorter formats.

The changes

For the uninitiated, there are some fundamental differences between the kho kho that is played indigenously and the kho kho that was played in UKK.

The first difference was the move from mud ( mitti) to mat. Although artificial surfaces are used for national tournaments, that switch has not quite percolated to the grassroots, making UKK’s use of the mat seem unique.

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The second change was the reduction of the size of the field. Traditionally, the two poles in kho kho are 24 metres apart. UKK brought that down to 19m. The space crunch allows room for only seven attackers as opposed to the traditional nine. Confining the action to a shorter field of play resulted in players needing to be quicker, more agile and durable, but the shorter field coupled with the hard mat also increases the risk of injury.

The third and perhaps the most sweeping alteration to the game has been the introduction of the Wazir (equivalent of the Bishop in chess).

The Kho Kho Federation of India sampled this in leagues in the run-up to UKK. An attacker can traditionally move only in one direction but a Wazir is allowed to attack on both sides. The attacking team is allowed a ‘powerplay’ in each innings to field two wazirs, which makes a defender’s life harder.

“A defender who was able to spend four minutes is finding it challenging to spend even one. The one who actually does (spend longer than one minute) becomes a star,” Sanjeev Sharma, the head coach of Gujarat Giants, which finished as the third best team, explains.

Nurturer, aficionado: Shrirang Inamdar at his residence in Pune. Inamdar, secretary of the Nav Maharashtra Sangh, a kho kho club in Maharashtra, believes the kho kho played in the UKK is devoid of the jeevanaachi mulya - the basic life values that make up the soul of the game.

Nurturer, aficionado: Shrirang Inamdar at his residence in Pune. Inamdar, secretary of the Nav Maharashtra Sangh, a kho kho club in Maharashtra, believes the kho kho played in the UKK is devoid of the jeevanaachi mulya - the basic life values that make up the soul of the game. | Photo Credit: LAVANYA LAKSHMI NARAYANAN

“This format requires incredible levels of fitness. The ones who will crack the fitness bit, the ones who will have muscular strength, will succeed in this format.”

That’s another stark departure from the agile, leaner bodies that are usually preferred, given that the name of the game is to dodge. One might think that these changes sway the game in favour of the attacking team. But the rules provide incentive to the art of defence as well. The defending side is awarded two points if its batch (group of three players) stays on the mat for two minutes and 30 seconds. Every subsequent 30 seconds hands the team another two points.

Losing its soul?

The glamour now added to the sport might be great for television and for a nation that’s happy to embrace league sports with open arms, but traditionalists are not convinced. Maharashtra is the kho kho hub in India. A majority of the players in UKK hail from this state. The sport has grown on the shoulders of the passionate club culture there, and one of those clubs — the Nav Maharashtra Sangh — has five of its players featuring in the league.

Club secretary Shrirang Inamdar is proud to see his wards find success on this platform but he claims he does not recognise the sport they play. The 68-year-old contends that the changes made to the format have altered the jeevanaachi mulya — the basic life values that make up the soul of the game.

“This is not the kho kho I know. This has ‘ultimate’ before the sport’s name. This is not the kho kho I have played and trained for so many years,” Inamdar says.

He begins with the Wazir. “This is a misplaced concept. You have attacked the soul of the game. This is one of the main characteristics of kho kho. It is clearly defined. If the shoulder line takes a direction you have to go towards that side,” he says.

Sweeping changes like Wazir, Inamdar feels, eliminate the nuances like dodging, stepping and ring game. “ Sirf bhaagte raho. Pitch chhota karne ke baad bhi log bhaag hee rahe hain (The idea seems to be to just keep running. After the pitch has been shortened, people are just running)”.

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Inamdar then moves to the constant breaks in UKK matches. “There is a proverb in Marathi — ‘ Thambala toh sampala,’” Inamdar says, meaning the moment it stops, it stagnates. A game of kho kho should flow like a stream, according to Inamdar.

Inamdar lives and breathes kho kho, so much so that his accolades and memorabilia from kho kho find a larger space in his living room than his puja. All of Inamdar’s efforts since 1975 have reaped rewards.

“Shiv Chhatrapati Award (Maharashtra’s sports award) was started in 1970, and so far kho kho has 46 winners. Out of that, 19 are from Nav Maharashtra Sangh. Out of the 54 open senior Nationals in kho kho, my students have represented Maharashtra in 26 of them,” he says.

Star presence: Cricketer Prithvi Shaw (centre) with UKK CEO Tenzing Niyogi (right) and Sujoy Ganguly of GMR Sports during a match between Gujarat Giants and Rajasthan Warriors in Pune.

Star presence: Cricketer Prithvi Shaw (centre) with UKK CEO Tenzing Niyogi (right) and Sujoy Ganguly of GMR Sports during a match between Gujarat Giants and Rajasthan Warriors in Pune. | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Inamdar has managed his club for the last 47 years, and understands he is gatekeeping a version of the sport that the league has strayed away from.

While his distaste for the changes moves him to tears, the Arjuna Awardee does not decry the concept.

“In terms of rewards and the publicity, I appreciate the effort,” he says.

For his players in the competition, he simply wishes that they don’t forget their roots.

Taking Kho Kho worldwide

This soft spot, despite all differences between the two formats, is for a common aim. Kho kho was a part of the Asian Games programme in 1982, and its stakeholders, even if at opposite ends, would love to see it back.

“Kho kho was a part of Olympics in 1936,” says Punit Balan, owner of the Mumbai Khiladis franchise, referring to the game’s first overseas demonstration in the 1936 Berlin Olympics with Adolf Hitler in attendance.

“Unfortunately, it isn’t any more. But the federation, through this league, and all of us are trying to take it back to the Asian Games and the Olympics and take the game to an international level.”

A big part of that is bringing in foreign players and taking the new format out into the world — this is something that has worked for a sport like cricket and one as indigenous as kabaddi with the Pro Kabaddi League.

“During the league, we had (cricketer) Jonty Rhodes, who had come here to train the kids in their diving skills. During the interaction, he was telling us that games similar to Kho Kho are played in South Africa and Sweden. So, the sport is known, it’s just a matter of streamlining it and familiarising people abroad with the rules we have here in the league — that we have a Wazir, it’s not a nine-player game, it’s a seven-player game. We need to teach them these changes and if we get good players from there also and once the league is open to other countries, we’re ready to bring players from other nations,” Balan adds.

“The bottom of the pyramid has been churning talent (in kho kho), what it needed was at the apex of the pyramid a professionally structured, process-oriented sports league with the right stakeholders,” Niyogi emphasises.

A four-year effort in putting the first season together has been fairly successfully for Niyogi. He has by his side former Dabur promoter Amit Burman and the likes of Adani Sportsline, GMR Sports, and even individual investors including rapper Badshah.

The logistically challenging caravan format and a women’s league are in the pipeline for UKK. “Kho kho is the only sport which enjoys equivalent or more participation of female athletes,” says Niyogi.

As UKK grows, its biggest challenge will be to retain the soul of the sport without taking away its value as a “television product.”

Final points table: Group stage

TEAMMATCHES PLAYEDWONLOSTPOINTSSCORE DIFFERENCE
GUJARAT GIANTS107323-8
ODISHA JUGGERNAUTS107321-4
TELUGU YODDHAS106419150
CHENNAI QUICK GUNS105515-3
MUMBAI KHILADIS104612-36
RAJASTHAN WARRIORS10194-99

Knockouts

Q1Odisha Juggernauts beat Gujarat Giants 57-43
Q2Telugu Yoddhas beat Gujarat Giants 67-44
FINALOdisha Juggernauts beat Telugu Yoddhas 46-45

Top attackers

RAMJI KASHYAP (CQG)108 points
MAJAHAR JAMADAR (RW)105 points

Top defenders

RAMJI KASHYAP (CQG)21:48
DEEPAK MADHAV (TY)20:23

Top Wazir

ABHINANDAN PATIL (GG)89

Not Outs

MAJAHAR JAMADAR (RW)8

Player of the tournament

RAMJI KASHYAPCHENNAI QUICK GUNS
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