A major reason why events like the Asian Games are awaited is because they bring attention to a sports and players who have been confined to the shadows in a cricket-crazy nation. While shooting, wrestling, badminton and boxing have gained prominence in India over the years, there are still many teams that are yet to break the popularity barriers. One such sport is Sepak Takraw. The Indian Men’s Regu team returned with their first ever medal after four outings in the Asia Games.

After defeating Iran 2-1, India went down 0-2 against Indonesia in Jakarta but courtesy Iran’s winless performance, India qualified for the semi-finals, which assured them a medal. In the fight for the finals, India went down 0-2 in the semis against Thailand, one of the strongest teams in Asia at the moment. In the process, sporting history was still made as the team clinched the first bronze medal. So what exactly is Sepak Takraw?

The sport is played majorly in Southeast Asian countries like Indonesia and Malaysia with each team comprising three players who can use their feet, head, knee or chest to hit the plastic ball over the net, onto the floor in the rival’s court to score a point. The game is akin to volleyball, only that while volleyball allows players to use their hands and feet, Sepak Takraw considers that as an infringement of rules. Teams, or regus, have a striker, server and a feeder and the main objective is to get to 21 points that will win them a set.

The feeder tosses the ball to the server, who is expected to keep one foot within the serving circle and use the other foot to toss the ball over the net. On the other side, the server and the feeder have the job of passing the ball to the striker in just three contacts. Once the striker receives the ball, he has to smash it back over to the other regu. If he misses to pass it over the net, the opposition team will be awarded a point.

While the men’s team romped away with a historical medal, the performance of the women’s team left much to be desired, losing all three matches in the group stage. The sport has taken rapid strides in the recent past, with medals coming in a few competitions and hence it was a major disappointment when the women’s team failed to register a win.

The origins of the sport in India date back to 1982 when New Delhi hosted the Asiad. Sepak Takraw was held as a demonstration sport back then and it proved to be a huge hit. Two years later, the Sepak Takraw Federation of India (STFI) was formed and three years later, in 1987 the first-ever nationals in the sport were held. Over the course of the years, 27 nationals in the senior-level and 22 junior nationals have been conducted that highlight how popular the sport has become.

While the game is famous in the north-east, Manipur has led the way in popularizing the sport in India. Since their debut in the 2006 Asian Games, 14 players from Manipur have gone on to represent India across the women’s and men’s teams. The growth of the game can be ascertained from the fact that way back in 1999, when Manipur hosted the National Games, only four states turned up with a Sepak Takraw regu team. Today, 25 states have a fully functioning governing body and with youngsters taking a keen interest in the sport, “foot volleyball’s” popularity is definitely is on the rise.

However, taking the game up out of passion and then converting it into a profession is a whole different ball-game. Players like KH Niken and Sandeep Kumar who made their third Games appearance have full-time careers away from Sepak Takraw, while most of the other members in the team are daily wage earners. With no recognition from the Indian Olympic Association as well, the future of the sport in India looks uncertain, but despite the obstacles the strong showing at international events is impressive.

The team won a bronze in their first international outing at the King’s Cup in 2004 but had to forfeit the games in the Asiad two years later due to the lack of players. In Guangzhou, the men’s team missed qualifying for the quarters after losing a nail-biter and in Incheon they finished fifth. The World Series in India saw the men’s team defeat Malaysia for the first time that helped them clinch bronze. Last year, in the World Cup that was held at Telangana, the Indian men’s contingent bagged a bronze after clinching silver in the Asian Championships.

The bronze in Jakarta will only add to their rising confidence and if the players and coaches continue with their efforts, Sepak Takraw can be a sport to watch out for in the future.