Anup Kumar emerged from the hour-long team meeting sporting an autographed Australian rules football jersey gifted to him by the visiting Australian team.
“Jab harte hain to meeting lambi hi chalti hai (when we lose, the meeting lasts longer),” says the Indian kabaddi captain, amusement blending with hurt in his Haryanvi accent. The mighty Indian team had been brought down by Korea (32-34) in the first game of the 2016 Kabaddi World Cup in Ahmedabad on 7 October; a glitch in their supposed show of supremacy.
“I made two big mistakes during the game,” says Kumar, 32, about the game. “People call me Captain Cool, but I fell short in my role as a leader in that game. As a senior player and captain, I should have done better.”
Kumar is a straight-talking master strategist who believes more in execution than planning. India went on to win the World Cup for the third time in a row, beating Iran in the final on 22 October.
Till a few years ago, however, neither the questions nor his answers would have carried that much weight. The 2004 and 2007 Kabaddi world cups were in India, and were won by it, without anyone paying too much attention. There was no television coverage and the newspapers that did report it belonged largely to the Indian-language press. Pre-2014, Kumar wouldn’t have sat in a five-star hotel, sipping masala chai.
“Aaj kal to sab table pe milta hai (these days, you get everything on a platter),” he says.
The advent of the Pro Kabaddi League from 2014 has made the game more popular and Indian victories at the world cup count. Players have become household names and enjoy their share of the limelight.
“Before Pro Kabaddi, people never interviewed us,” he says, flagging the media’s indifference to the ancient Indian sport before it became mainstream. “Once we came back from tournaments, some reporters would call and ask how we did. That’s it. I could not compete in the 2007 World Cup because of a back injury, and I had to ask the players about how India is doing. There was no other way to follow it.”
There was a time when kabaddi was considered a relic of Indian culture, consigned to dusty rural fields.
“I didn’t know much about kabaddi when I started playing in school,” says Kumar, who comes from Palra village in Gurgaon, near Delhi. “This is what I knew of kabaddi: There were school or inter-village competitions, and I used to see these boys from nearby villages come back with prizes. The winner was givenRs.1,100. Sometimes, they would give away towels, plates or vessels as prizes. I wanted to win those too. I didn’t even know that you could get a government job because of kabaddi.”
Kumar is currently employed as a deputy commissioner of police in Haryana.
His father died when he was very young. Kumar, the youngest of four children, didn’t care for school but he did help his mother out with household duties. “I have done everything, even milked buffaloes—we still keep them. I have collected and spread cow dung, washed clothes, swept and mopped the floor. Those days were also good, can never forget them.”
Lazy afternoons were spent chasing and hunting hares barefoot, stealing lights from cars and breaking beehives. “We used to get caught every single time and get beaten,” he says. The experience seems to have helped—Kumar has made a career out of evading defenders on the kabaddi mat.
At the time, however, kabaddi was not considered a career option.
“I was never really interested in school,” says Kumar. “I used to play kabaddi in school or in the village but I thought, and the family said, that there was no scope in the game. So I gave it up for some time.
“I started athletics: javelin, discus and shot put. I was good at throwing. There’s a district sports hostel in Gurgaon. I gave a trial for it and was selected. I lived in the hostel for a year. But then I had a tiff with the coach, so they threw me out of the hostel. I tried travelling to the centre for six-seven months, but that was too hectic and started affecting my game, so I stopped doing it.”
Kumar returned to kabaddi in 2001 and has stayed with it. He played his first senior kabaddi nationals in 2004 in Kurukshetra and made his India debut in 2005 at the Aspire Challenge Trophy in Doha, Qatar; this was the test event for the 2006 Doha Asian Games.
Though he missed out on that Asiad owing to a back injury, he was a member of the Indian team that won the gold medal at the 2010 Guangzhou and 2014 Incheon Asian Games.
Nevertheless, he says, “No one valued a kabaddi player. Now, because kabaddi is being talked about so much, even people who don’t know you by name or recognize you, respect you because you play kabaddi. Earlier, people in the village only knew me as a kabaddi player, but now that they watch me on TV, it’s completely different. They see I’m a good player, have a good attitude, and that’s why they respect me and my family.”
Kumar, who is also the captain of Pro Kabaddi’s U Mumba team, saw his face plastered all around Ahmedabad during the kabaddi World Cup. He’s no longer just the captain of the Indian team, he also comes across as an ambassador of the game. He is respectful of, and almost reverential about, the art and its practitioners.
He spent the eve of the World Cup rehearsing his part in the opening ceremony rather than practising for the game against Korea.
“For a player, practice is most important. But doing these things is important too. It is only going to help the game grow,” says Kumar, taking a diplomatic view of the media overdrive his mates and he were thrown into during the World Cup, which was telecast live.
“Without kabaddi I am nothing,” he says.
Anup Kumar led U Mumba to the title in the second season of the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL), held in August 2015. He was the most successful raider in the first season held in July-August 2014 and has been among the top 10 raiders in all four seasons of the league so far.
“Even before PKL, this (kabaddi) gave me a living and a life. There have been players before me who did not get a chance to play on a platform like this. But they were all good players; I would like to believe they were better than me,” he says.
Kumar belongs to the old school in which respect for seniors is paramount. “Of course, not everyone thinks like that. I am now one of the senior players and probably not as quick as I used to be.
“But today, if any of the youngsters says, ‘Ask Anup to compete against us, to get points off us, to get a toe touch off us,’ then whatever I have achieved till date has no meaning.”
His leadership, however, is almost unquestioned—it shows in the almost lazy, confident swagger with which he enters a raid. He’s the glue that brings the team together, soothes egos and inspires young talent.
“In the meeting, if I don’t, no one will point out that I made an error. But when a youngster sees someone like me owning up, it will give him courage to admit his own mistakes. That’s the only way you can learn, and grow.”