It’s 7.30 on a Sunday morning, and Kuldeep Bist owes his team a round of bananas.
The 43-year-old rugby coach of the Delhi Hurricanes, sporting a John Lennon hairstyle and a leg brace out of a science fiction movie, is paying the price for his own decision. “It’s my fault, really,” he laughs, watching the rest of his team practise set pieces at the Jasola Sports Complex in Sarita Vihar. “There was a lot of filthy language being spoken on the field, so I decided to fine anyone who swears during practice. Turns out, I was the biggest offender.”
Rugby 101: A typical practice session involves complex set pieces, basic drills, discussions on strategy and, if you’re lagging, lots of punishment push-ups. Madhu Kapparath / Mint
But while bananas can bail you out if you use swear words, Bist isn’t so easy on sloppy play. “This team tends to get too comfortable, so sometimes a bit of kick in the back is necessary,” he says. “They’re almost like an extended family.” He’s not using a figure of speech. There are six pairs of brothers in Delhi Hurricanes, all from the same village of Maidan Garhi, where rugby is now the sport du jour.
In 2004, when Bist, a former member of the national team, decided to form the Hurricanes, finding players was his first major challenge. Scouting for talent at a few local school matches, such as the Shiksha Bharati School at Dwarka, he found that even the so-called seasoned veterans knew little to nothing about the game they were playing.
“The first question he asked us,” recalls Manoj Kumar, one of the Hurricanes’ most senior players at 28, “was ‘What position do you play—Flanker or Winger?’ We were stumped. We had no idea what those terms meant.” Bist then shifted focus to getting the young, green recruits up to spec, and in that search found the village of Maidan Garhi.
Located near the Indira Gandhi National Open University (Ignou), where Bist lives and works as an administrator, Maidan Garhi is home to the Dagar clan of Jats. Bist noticed that most boys there were “heavily built and seemed to have a natural inclination towards sports.” He hung around the village looking for “catch”.
He got his most important catch in 20-year-old Arun Dagar, a national-level high jumper and discus thrower. When Bist asked Arun if he would play rugby, the youth, who had only seen rugby on television, agreed to try it out. Like Bist years ago, he fell in love with the game. Arun not only went on to become the team’s captain, he was also instrumental in getting other boys from the village to play along. Friends joined in, and brought their brothers along. There are around 18,000 rugby players across the country, but the village has given this year’s national team four players. Rugby hasn’t yet found a permanent home in Maidan Garhi, however.
“Nearly 40 boys from the village played rugby at one point, but a lot of them left because they thought it had no scope,” says Arun. “There’s no space to play within the village, and even the fields have too uneven a surface for proper practice,” he says.
Professional rugby is a little more than a decade old in India, and fledging clubs such as the Hurricanes, which participate in inter-city tournaments, operate largely in an amateur space—where sponsors are rare. Few, if any, can support themselves full-time with just rugby, and juggle jobs, households and college with a game they love passionately.
En route: The Hurricanes (coach Kuldeep Bist is in a black T-shirt) have shifted training grounds six times over the last year. Their current home in Jasola is also temporary. Madhu Kapparath / Mint
“My parents ask me what I’m going to get out of this game. I don’t have any answers to that, all I know is I love it,” Arun says.
This familial objection gets louder, says 17-year-old Jagga Dagar, another player from Maidan Garhi, when you get injured. “The coach insists we all get insured, but insurance companies pay only if you have been admitted in hospital. They don’t compensate if you have a fracture or are prescribed physiotherapy,” Arun says.
“The boys all want to make a career in rugby, but are doubtful about it,” says Arun. “Their main ambition right now is to be selected and play in the national team.” All eyes are now on the 2010 Commonwealth Games where India, as host nation, qualifies automatically.
Nitin Dagar, 19, who was named Best Forward at the Under-19 Bombay Gymkhana tournament in June, has convinced his parents that rugby is going to take off in a big way once the Indian team, currently ranked 83rd in the world, debuts in the games.
Bist echoes the sentiment. “But I hope we don’t draw world champions New Zealand in the first match,” he says. “Then, we’ll have to plead with them to keep the score down a bit!”