Rakesh Kumar, the former India captain, and Anup Kumar, his successor, both describe any potential Indian defeat as a “calamity”. It will be deeply embarrassing, a body blow, if India, playing at home, were to lose the forthcoming Kabaddi World Cup.
Such has been India’s stranglehold over the sport, their total domination of it. They won the first two World Cups, in 2004 and 2007, and seven successive gold medals at the Asian Games—the sport was introduced at the Asian Games in 1990 in Beijing.
At the 2016 World Cup, which begins at a new multi-purpose stadium called The Arena in Ahmedabad on 7 October, with India playing South Korea in the first match, they will once again start as overwhelming favourites.
Of the other 11 teams, only Iran have the skill and experience to stall the Indian juggernaut. Other Asian teams, like South Korea and Thailand, are slowly getting better but India’s pedigree will be almost impossible to undermine.
“There will be a lot of pressure on the Indian team,” says Rakesh Kumar, who captained India to victory at the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea. “Playing at home, with kabaddi becoming such a popular spectator sport now, with India as overwhelming favourites, we cannot afford to lose.”
Struggling to find the necessary funds and fanfare, the World Cup has been held erratically, as and when sponsors were available.
The inaugural World Cup was held in Wadala, central Mumbai, in 2004, and the second was held in 2007 in Panvel, on the outskirts of Mumbai. Both were held in relative obscurity. Meanwhile, the Asian Games, with the best teams from the continent, was considered the sport’s premier event.
Rakesh Kumar was the captain and Anup Kumar his deputy when India came closest to a defeat in the final of the 2014 Asian Games. Iran, which has been gaining ground steadily in the past few years, led India by eight points at half-time.
“They were playing really well, and we just couldn’t find the balance,” recalls Rakesh. “Since Anup and I were the most senior players in the squad, we knew we could not let our confidence sag.
“At the Asian Games, kabaddi has always ensured a gold medal for India, and it would have been a calamity if we lost. We were playing for prestige.”
India sneaked to a two-point (27-25) victory. Rakesh, now 34, is down with an injury and is not part of the current Indian squad. But he knows the burden his countrymen carry.
While the three-season-old Star Sports Pro Kabaddi League has made the sport more mainstream and provided glamour, it is an ancient Indian sport, rooted in the country’s culture.
Like wrestling, it has now shifted from mud to mat but India’s prowess has so far been unchallenged. Pakistan has been India’s traditional rival, but the current political situation may well keep them out of the 2016 World Cup.
The game is popular among non-resident Indians too, says Deoraj Chaturvedi, chief executive officer of the International Kabaddi Federation. Foreign teams in the World Cup will include their local players as well as non-resident Indians with foreign passports, he says.
“We have been sending Indian coaches to places like Australia, England and Poland for two-three years. Argentina are going to surprise everyone—they have been playing the game since the early 2000s.”
In the Australian, English and US teams, players have been pulled in from other contact sports such as rugby and football. Some of the squads may have the required girth and power, but as Rakesh reminds us, it’s a sport that requires speed, skill, power, athleticism and endurance in equal measure.
Most of the teams are still novices when it comes to the strategies and nuances of the game.
India called its best 27 players for a 20-day training camp in August-September before deciding on a World Cup squad of 14.
“It is great to be a part of the Pro Kabaddi League, but each of the players here knows his responsibility for the country,” says Anup. “They know what they are playing for. If we win, history books will have my name, the name of every member of the team, that we are world champions.
“For me, being captain, it is a great responsibility. God forbid, if we lose, it will be a calamity.”
None of the Indian players has been part of a World Cup before. More than Iran, the pressure to perform is likely to be their biggest adversary.
Indian team: Anup Kumar (captain), Ajay Thakur, Deepak Hooda, Dharamraj Cheralathan, Jasvir Singh, Kiran Parmar, Manjeet Chhillar, Mohit Chhillar, Nitin Tomar, Pardeep Narwal, Rahul Chaudhuri, Surender Nada, Surjeet, Sandeep Narwal.
Participating teams: Bangladesh, Thailand, Iran, the US, England, Australia, Poland, Kenya, South Korea, Japan, Argentina and India.