The improbable rise of kabaddi

How did this indigenous sport become a prime time sensation?

The 2016 Kabaddi World Cup, which took place in Ahmedabad, saw India winning the world title for the third time in a row. Photo: PTI
The 2016 Kabaddi World Cup, which took place in Ahmedabad, saw India winning the world title for the third time in a row. Photo: PTI

As their match against India was announced to a roaring 3000-strong crowd at TransStadia’s The Arena in Ahmedabad, Australia jogged onto the field of play, led by Campbell Brown, and bent down to touch the mat for blessings.

It’s not a gesture that the super-competitive Australians make in any other sport. But when in India, playing a very ‘Indian’sport, they aligned themselves to a tradition possibly as old as the game of kabaddi itself.

The 2016 Kabaddi World Cup, which took place in Ahmedabad from 7 to 22 October , not only saw India winning the world title for the third time in a row, but also brought together nations far and near, in different stages of their kabaddi growth. Given the inexperience of some of the sides—Australia and US teams were put together less than a month before the tournament — it wasn’t a competitive spectacle. But with top-class production and broadcast hours in countries like England and Australia, the game sailed to uncharted territories.

How did kabaddi do it? In the frantic race for making sports other than cricket into vibrant businesses with good TV viewership, how did kabaddi leave behind other, more established (and more haloed because of their presence in the Olympics) sports like badminton and wrestling?

“The idea of a World Cup is not new,” says Deoraj Chaturvedi, the CEO of the International Kabaddi Federation, who has also worked closely with the game-changing Pro Kabaddi League which started in 2014 and found instant success in the Russian roulette of new sporting leagues. “We had World Cups in 2004 and 2007 but could not really showcase the game in the best possible way,” Chaturvedi says. “There was a nine year gap in the World Cups also because we did not have the money. When Pro Kabaddi came about, and it was such a huge success, we thought we now had the apt environment to conduct another edition. Star (Sports) also came forward to support the venture.”

Kabaddi was once considered a rural pastime. Photo: Arun Sharma/Hindustan Times
Kabaddi was once considered a rural pastime. Photo: Arun Sharma/Hindustan Times

The idea of another World Cup, on a completely different plane from the obscure four-day affairs they had conducted in 2004 and 2007, took root in July last year, during season two of Pro Kabaddi. Twelve teams from the five different Olympic regions were invited to give it an international feel. It didn’t mean much in terms of playing quality, but seeing the legendary white and blue Argentine stripes and green and gold of Australia on a kabaddi mat was an intriguing sight. The game, once considered a rural pastime, was going global.

Chaturvedi wants to lose the ‘rural’ tag kabaddi is branded with.

“We have called it a rural sport and neglected it,” he says. “It is India’s game, and unlike something like Australian Rules football and American football, which are also niche sports, there wasn’t enough pride in playing kabaddi. It used to be a big game but then there was no money in it. Which meant not many people took to it. But tell me any sport which has so many high points in such a short time. In kabaddi, there is action every 20 seconds.”

The explosiveness of kabaddi is what makes it so television friendly. While the TV avenue was largely unexplored earlier, Charu Sharma, a TV sports commentator and the director of Mashal Sports , the company that ideated the Pro Kabaddi League, first spotted the game’s potential during the 2006 Asian Games in Doha. It took time for the League to actually take form, but once Pro Kabaddi hit the TV screens in 2014, it became an immediate phenomenon.

“Kabaddi is naturally compatible for television,” says Sharma. “Firstly, it is played indoors, in a controlled environment. The playing field is compact, which means the cameras don’t miss much. It is a robust sport and the players are athletic specimens. It is gripping action, and TV is a slave to that.

“There are some sports, for example hockey, which are great to watch on the field. But they are somehow too fast for television.”

Kabaddi still needed a few clever tweaks to make it even more viewer-friendly.

In co-ordination with the IKF, the 30-second rule (where no raid can exceed 30 seconds), the do-or-die raid (every third empty raid) and the super tackle (an extra point when three or less defenders make a successful tackle) were introduced. “There were times when even kabaddi got too fast for TV,” says Sharma. “We had to make the players who were eliminated take the long way round to go to the bench so we could use those seconds to show replays in slow motion!”

Once Star Sports came on board, in 2013, they decided on the look and feel of the game on TV and in-stadia. They dragged the game from dusty ad-hoc playing fields to blindingly neon-lit stadiums with thumping music, building the atmosphere further with aggressive media and marketing.

“Star Sports wanted a look of international sophistication,” says Sharma. “That’s what they extended to the World Cup as well.”

It could be one of the reasons why ‘leagues’ in other sports like hockey, football and wrestling have struggled to win the audience over while the PKL, with its home grown stars, has progressed so rapidly. The compact indoor venues give it a more intimate feel, and is easier on the pocket for organizers compared to large stadia. The viewership has grown with each season, and advertisers have shed their reluctance to invest in it. So much so, that it was seen viable enough for the League to have two seasons in the 2016 calendar year.

“On a cumulative basis, the League has shown growth of 51% over the last four seasons,” Star Sports had said in a statement at the end of season 4. The inaugural PKL had a viewership of 430 million, according to the channel.

The Pro Kabaddi League made the forgotten game mainstream. It leveraged the brutal contact aspect of it, something that, as the MMA phenomenon has proved, audiences can’t get enough of. It also banked on promoting domestic talent rather than hunting for international superstars to carry their brand. Needless to say, after four seasons of Pro Kabaddi the players, who earlier existed on the fringes of Indian sport, now enjoy widespread fame.

“None of us thought that Pro Kabaddi would be so successful and bring us so much fame,” says Rishank Devadiga, one of the League’s star raiders. The strappy, powerfully built raider with piercing eye is something of a style icon in the PKL, with his close-cropped hair and customary tika on the forehead going into a match.

Rishank Devadiga (orange Jersey) is one of the Pro Kabaddi League’s star raiders. Photo: Virendra Singh Gosain/Hindustan Times
Rishank Devadiga (orange Jersey) is one of the Pro Kabaddi League’s star raiders. Photo: Virendra Singh Gosain/Hindustan Times

He had started life in a slum in Vakola, in suburban Mumbai. His father passed away when he was two years old and his mother, a beautician, single-handedly raised him and his sister on her small income. As he studied in a convent school, St Anthony’s in Santacruz, there was no kabbadi to be played there. But on the streets of Vakola, that was the only sport they played.

Life in the slum would become unbearable during the monsoons, as the low-lying area floods easily and ferociously. Money was always a struggle. After completing junior college, Devadiga was forced to give up on education and help his mother earn for the family.

“I took up a job as a waiter in a hotel because we needed the money at the time,” says the 24-year-old. But he continued to play kabaddi on the streets. When he was 18, he was spotted during a local tournament by the coach of the Bharat Petroleum Corporation Limited (BPCL) team, who urged him to take up kabaddi seriously. Devadiga played his first district tournament, the Thane Mayor trophy, in 2010 for the Mumbai suburban team. Within a few months, he was given a playing contract by Dena Bank.

“I was supposed to play for the department nationals for Dena Bank in Nagpur and asked my manager for leave. But he wasn’t too happy with it since I had taken holidays earlier already to play kabaddi,” he says. When his boss refused to grant leave, Devadiga chose the game over his bread-and-butter job. In 2011, BPCL offered him a job through sports quota and set his kabaddi dreams on a smoother track. “We were all playing the game because we liked it. None of us thought that something like Pro Kabaddi would ever happen,” says Devadiga, who earned just over Rs.5.2 lakhs playing for U Mumba in the inaugural season of the League. He bought a washing machine and air conditioner. As his fame grew, so did the value. In the fourth season, U Mumba spent Rs.15 lakh to retain him.

“I am fond of bikes, and that’s my extravagance,” says Devadiga. “I have bought a KTM and we now rent an apartment in Santacruz. I am yet to buy my own house, but it’s something that I am working on.”

That aspirational value is something that, Sharma thinks, has gone some way in making the sport such a big hit, especially among the younger audience. “They all have neighbours,” says Sharma. “When they see these guys on TV playing so well and see the money and fame it can bring, they might take up the game too.”

While the Kabaddi League has stressed on Indian stars, it has also benefitted players from other countries. The likes of Jang Kun Lee (Korea), Fazel Atrachali and Meraj Sheykh (Iran), Masayuki Shimokawa (Japan) and Simon Kibura (Kenya) are international names and have done well and given Pro Kabaddi a more inclusive look.

Australia’s Campbell Brown (in green and yellow jersey) during a group match against South Korea at the Kabaddi World Cup 2016 in Ahmedabad. Photo: PTI
Australia’s Campbell Brown (in green and yellow jersey) during a group match against South Korea at the Kabaddi World Cup 2016 in Ahmedabad. Photo: PTI

Campbell Brown, the captain of the Australian team at the Kabaddi World Cup, was surprised that he hadn’t seen or heard about kabaddi before the invite to join the trial camp for the tournament arrived—“Never in a million years did I think I’d be in India playing for my country in kabaddi!”

But Brown came with tough sporting pedigree; like his father, he was a well-known player in the Australian Football League, where he had played for almost 12 years. Brown not only had the foundations for kabaddi, he knew what it took for a niche sport to find global appeal.

“They are exciting games,” says Brown, 33. “That’s the thing that drew me to kabaddi. Some of the attributes that you need in AFL are applicable in kabaddi. You need peripheral vision. It’s a 360 degree game, like AFL you can get tackled from behind or from the side, (or from) in front. The speed on your feet, your toes, the agility. Then the tackling, the physical side of things.”

The Australian team was put together in three weeks; it is significant that they trained at the Essendon Football Club in Melbourne, one of the homes of Australian Rules Football, and one of the oldest clubs in the AFL--In 1879, Essendon played Melbourne in one of the first night matches to be played in any sport.

The first challenge for the Aussies, with three former Australian Rules Football players (Brown, Adam Schneider and Stephen Milne) making up the spine, was to learn how to stay low on their feet. If they were to succeed in kabaddi, they had to give up the upright stance, wired into their muscle memory by now.

“They are the little things that will get us unstuck,” Brown, typically Aussie in his thickly muscled, ginger-haired easy athleticism, says. “You might notice that in the beginning it’s fine, but then as you fatigue, you go back to your old habits. Our coach has been doing some raiding, and every time he sees us up, he slaps, so you have to focus on footwork.”

For the Australians, who had to learn the techniques and tactics of the game and step onto the game’s biggest stage in less than a month, it was a surreal experience.

“I am considered very very old in Australia for sport,” adds Brown. “With our AFL career over, this gave some of us a chance to play for Australia in another sport. We see this as a stepping stone for kabaddi in Australia. There is a lot of press in Australia due to the presence of the AFL players. They are showing it live on Fox Sports. Hopefully, for the 2018 World Cup, we will be a stronger team.”

In Australia, like in most other teams, the logic was to bring in players from other sports disciplines, those who had the required athletic base and teach them the rules. The World Cup saw a mix of players from AFL, American football, martial arts, soccer and even a rodeo (Mariano Pascual, Argentina).

“It is a very elementary physical sport,” says Sharma. “If the game is taken to countries that already have a strong porting culture, like South Africa or Germany, they will take to it like ducks to water.”

Australia was one of the freshly brewed teams, but there were some countries like Kenya, Poland and Argentina that already have some sort of set up in kabaddi. While Kenya and Poland have taken it up with fervour, Argentina has seen a gradual growth in the game since 2001. With the Asian Games including kabaddi to their fold in 1990, the game had already seen some expansion outside the subcontinent and Iran.

But the IKF has been trying to take it to newer territories for the past five years by sending Indian coaches out.

“It is No 1 on our list of alternative sports,” says Ricardo Acuna, coach of the Argentina team at the World Cup. Acuna is also the president of the Commission of Alternative Sports in Argentina.

“The things we see are, can the game be played with little or no equipment, and can the game be explained in less than five minutes? Kabaddi qualifies on both counts and that’s why its been easy to get people to play it. We started by getting rugby clubs to use it as part of their training,” Acuna added.

The World Cup, which was telecast to over 120 territories and saw a viewership of 80 million in the first week, gave the teams and the game an incredible platform. The IKF hopes that with the “apex” of the game established, it will have a trickle down effect. There is now a plan to have a World Cup every two years to make up for lost time and give teams something to aspire to.

“The teams were not the most competitive in this edition, but it’s a start,” says India captain Anup Kumar. “We’ll see the results a few years down the line. If more teams keep competing regularly, there is a possibility that it will be considered for the Olympics.”

Given kabaddi’s momentum, it may be sooner rather than later that the push for a place at the Olympics will begin.

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