It is rare to find former Indian kabaddi player Anup Kumar, now coach of Puneri Paltan in the Pro Kabaddi league, frowning oranimated on the sidelines during a match. In many ways, his role as a coach is a reflection of the role he played on the kabaddi court for more than 15 years.

Kumar was one of the mainstays of the Indian team during a successful period, which included gold medals at the 2010 and 2014 editions of the Asian Games and the 2016 Kabaddi World Cup. During his playing days in the national team and the league, Kumar was known to exude calmness and composure. He would go about raiding or defending without any fuss. The 35-year-old, who retired as a player with Jaipur Pink Panthers last December, says he is now trying to do something similar as a coach.

“My approach towards coaching has been the same. Earlier, my job was to play on the court. Now, my job is to make the team click while I am outside of it. But the transition from being a player to coaching has not been easy," says Kumar, whom we meet at the team hotel during the Delhi leg of the ongoing season.

Anup Kumar in numbers
Anup Kumar in numbers

The raider from Haryana started his Pro Kabaddi career with the U Mumba franchise in the inaugural season in 2014. He captained them to the finals, where they lost to Pink Panthers. However, he finished the season as the league’s top scorer with 169 raid points and was elected the season’s most valuable player. Redemption awaited Kumar in season 2 when he led U Mumba to the Pro title, beating Bengaluru Bulls in the final. He spent five consecutive seasons with Mumbai, and joined Pink Panthers in season 6.

Before season 6, Kumar underwent surgery for a recurring ankle injury. But the recovery did not go as planned. “When I was playing with Jaipur Pink Panthers in season 6, I didn’t perform at the levels I expected. My rehabilitation after the surgery wasn’t up to the mark, and that affected my performances. That’s when I decided that I should step aside and share whatever I have learnt from kabaddi with youngsters," says Kumar.

Despite other coaching offers, Kumar decided to join the Pune franchise. Kumar says the reason for this was that he enjoys a good rapport with the team’s CEO, Kailash Kandpal. He also liked the team management, including the constant support of team mentor Ashok Shinde, a former kabaddi coach and Arjuna Award winner.

His coaching career, though, has not had the best of starts—Pune has failed to qualify for the playoffs this season. Injuries to key players like lead raider Nitin Tomar haven’t helped. There are, however, some bright spots. As a team, Pune has been impressive in defence: They top the stats table so far in season 7 for the most number of successful tackles, total tackle points and average tackle points. “We needed to work both on raiding and defence to perform as a unit. There have been many games that were in our favour but things turned against us at the last minute. Having said that, we tried our best to perform well," adds Kumar. In raiders Manjeet, Pankaj Mohite, and Sushant Sail, and defender Balasaheb Jadhav, Kumar already has a crop of young players that can improve the team further.

Some of Kumar’s international teammates, like Manjeet Chhillar and Rahul Chaudhuri, are still playing, while some like Rakesh Kumar, 37, have also started their league coaching careers.

“I speak a lot to Rakesh (coach of Haryana Steelers). I even spoke to him before I decided to retire since he’s a close friend," says Kumar. “Rakesh was an excellent player—he was even better than me. From what I have observed, he mostly does all the talking with the team before the match. He doesn’t really interfere much during a match. He only comes in for a team talk when it’s important," says Anup, who adds that his five-season stint with Mumbai played a pivotal role in his career, mostly because of everything he learnt from former U Mumba coach Edachery Bhaskaran.

Anup says the emergence of young coaches who have played in the league in recent years is a good sign for kabaddi, citing the example of Rakesh and Gujarat Fortune Giants coach Manpreet Singh, 39. “I think the former players and young coaches (like Rakesh and Singh) will play an important role for the upcoming players. They can tell young players how to navigate a long season and look after their fitness level, which is valuable," he explains.

Anup’s calm demeanour on the bench is a complete contrast to that of, say, Singh of Fortune Giants, who can often be seen fist-pumping during matches. “Players ko thoda pyaar se samjhaana chahiye (One should patiently explain things to the players). This is important if you don’t want them to be tense. The best approach is to motivate your players along the way and, I think, a coach can only do that when they are cool and composed themselves," Anup says.

Some current players have spoken often about Anup’s ability to nurture a team and players—the performances of his former teammates support that. Rishank Devadiga, who played with Anup for Mumbai, is now a stand-in captain for UP Yoddha, the league’s Uttar Pradesh franchise. Meanwhile, Vishal Mane, another former Mumbai player, has been one of the most consistent performers for Dabang Delhi on their road to the playoffs this season.

If he could, Anup says, he would still prefer to be playing on the court, lapping up bonus points as he always did. “I miss being on the court. That feeling will never go away."

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