Around this time last year, the Jaipur Pink Panthers’ Jasvir Singh launched one of his vintage raids. He entered the opposition half, which had all their seven men in play. Nimble footed, he floated across the mat like a butterfly, sizing up the defenders, hoping to sting at least one of them.
Singh is one of the Pro Kabaddi League’s (PKL) most experienced and decorated players. He is also one of the smallest players in a league filled with very large men with rock-solid torsos.
That night, uncharacteristically, he plunged into the deep end of the opposition half and in an instant found himself surrounded. A futile attempt to wriggle his way out of trouble was unsuccessful, ending in six massive defenders piling on him for a good seven seconds.
It wouldn’t have taken more than two defenders to take him down, but a kabaddi defender never misses an opportunity to dive into a tackle. Still, a six-man pile-up is overkill.
Put yourself in Jasvir’s shoes: the first thing you’d want to do is lash out against the opposition. But nothing of that sort transpired.
After that failed play, he merely stood in ceremony before making his way onto his own half, ready for the next point—an anticlimax. But not a surprising one.
In a fast-paced aggressive sport like pro kabaddi, there are surprisingly few confrontations or fights. Part of this has to do with the speed of the proceedings—it’s that rare sport in which the action is continuous and players don’t have the time to argue. Another reason is it has been created by television—Star Sports is the broadcaster and a stakeholder in the league—and thus a certain amount of sanitization is inbuilt.
“There would always be chances of confrontation,” says Anupam Goswami, commissioner of the league, which started in 2014. “I think it has to do with the core of the sport—every 30 seconds, it allows a team a chance against the other. It also means teams have to move along every 30 seconds.”
“The structure of the game encourages players to put things behind them (quickly) and get on with the game. Unlike other sports where there is a chance for on-field tension to build up because you’re not getting your chance to score,” he says.
Technically, the commissioner’s comments make sense, but the fact is that these players are involved more emotionally. It’s hard for the player to view it as an objective phenomenon.
“When you watch national kabaddi games, you see massive arguments with the referees because perhaps they’re not as televised (like the PKL) and there aren’t 20 cameras watching each move. There are no replays or reviews,” says Suhail Chandhok, one of the league’s commentators on television.
It’s the reason why, before the beginning of every season, Goswami and his committee conduct regular consultations with the captain and coach of every team. It is made clear that the responsibility of controlling a player’s aggression and use of expletives lies solely with the captain.
“If, on the field of play, you’ve used an expletive, as a league commissioner, I can go to the team and address this and I am able to play the video of what went wrong. I tell them the next time this happens then... ” Goswami trails off.
“The league has a technical committee and we do observe for roughness in the game. Many of disciplinary proceedings are around these issues. We’ve been able to tell them that this is not acceptable.”
So far, Goswami and his team’s approach have worked effectively but the challenge will be to maintain this code of conduct. The PKL is becoming a premier event; it’s popular among children and players are beginning to get strongly conscious of team identities. The fifth season starts on Friday, 28 July.
“It’s become a habit now, even as a youngster I focused on the game more,” says Dharmaraj Cheralathan, a former captain of the Patna Pirates and now with the Puneri Paltan. “Whatever said and done, the players do get angry at times but if you talk to them nicely, they understand. Now the world watches us on TV, the pressure is a little more. When I used to play the nationals and all-India tournaments, there wasn’t this kind of pressure.”
At 42, Cheralathan is among the oldest players in the competition. A defender who is at the receiving end of several body blows every match, Dharmaraj has come to terms with the fact that being calm is of paramount importance. He refuses to be part of the unsaid, psychological battles that fellow players engage in.
Prasad Rao is another central figure to the sport and the league, influential in moving the sport from mud to the mat at the 2002 Asian Games. He also started one of the first kabaddi academies in India in Gandhinagar in 1999.
From 1982 to 2002, he was the national coach, before joining the technical committee of the International Kabaddi Federation. Rao is also responsible for the germination of the sport in countries such as Korea, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, West Indies, France, Japan and England. Rao has seen it all.
“In one incident,” remembers Rao, “Anup Kumar (captain of the Indian team and a member of the UMumba roster in the PKL)—we call him Captain Cool—was at the receiving end of a hard tackle and was annoyed by the referee’s decision. He began arguing with him.”
“He was warned and given a yellow card which means sitting out for two minutes. But he apologized and accepted his mistake.”
Among the most respected kabaddi players in the world right now, Anup has had his patience and endurance tested a fair amount on the mat. Being the experienced campaigner that he is, it hasn’t flustered him. He’s received only two yellow cards so far.
“I don’t know how I stay so calm,” he says. “Kabaddi is definitely an aggressive game but I usually don’t get angry while playing. Yes, I do get angry when I am not playing but on the ground not so much. You can call it a gift. My team won’t benefit if I get angry, it will only lead to bad things. That always stays on my mind and that’s why I don’t talk nonsense while playing.”
The fact is, it’s easy for seven fit men to get overenthusiastic on the mat. Arguments can spiral into confrontations and even the calmest of them all can let loose at any point of time. Which is why a lot of these players regularly confide in sports psychologists.
“It’s a team contact sport, there’s a lot of pushing and pulling involved as a team,” says sports psychologist Gayatri Vartak, who has been working with kabaddi players for almost three years.
“So, it’s different from boxing and wrestling. Emotions need to be managed effectively and it (being calm on the field of play) needs to be taught. It doesn’t come naturally; it takes a lot of time to restructure cognition. The players have realized that.”
She believes it takes six to nine months of effort for the players to be able to control their emotions. And psychologists can train them to handle their emotions and control their anger when things don’t go their way on the field of play. Or when they feel intimidated by the physical quality of an opposition.
How do they do it? “There are scientific routines which help players stay in the zone that they wish to be in. Diaphragmatic breathing has helped; they can follow this technique off the mat, but also while playing,” says Janki Rajapurkar, a PhD scholar in sports science and psychology who has been working with PKL players since the inception of the league.
Defender Nilesh Shinde, 37, currently plies his trade for a team called Dabang Delhi. Extremely poised and tranquil on the mat, he has never received a yellow card suspension.
But he has six green cards—an initial warning for any violation of rules. It’s safe to say Shinde knows where to draw the line. After every practice session, he chants “Om” 21 times to help ease into a deep relaxed state.
“There’s no point in getting possessive and aggressive about the match. Whatever happens is shown on TV for the viewers,” says Shinde.
“PKL is the first time the sport has been broadcast on such a wide scale so the people shouldn’t get a bad idea about the sport. They instruct us that abusive terms and fighting isn’t accepted on the mat. They tell us it can negatively impact the viewership. If we play the game calmly, the game’s TRP will also increase and the sport will move forward.”
Somesh Chandran is a journalist at Sportskeeda and the founder of Dohaz.com, a lyrics discovery website.
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