Kabaddi Kabaddi, Kaba..... All The Way to London!
LONDON: India has never been an Olympic nation. Its woeful performance at last summer’s games was predictable given the country's track record of underachievement and underinvestment in Olympic sports. Yet the tide may be changing as the government and private sector look to propel one quintessentially Indian sport onto the world stage, and hopefully, the next Olympics.
Kabaddi, that most Indian of sports, has witnessed astonishing growth in the last couple of years. The creation of the Pro Kabaddi League in 2014 catapulted the sport to new levels of professionalism. A game which until recently, was played largely by amateurs, has now become one of the most elite sports in the country. In just two years, PKL has become the second most watched sport in India, with a rapidly growing audience that even threatens to overtake the IPL.
India is now looking to internationalise kabaddi in a bid to get it recognised as an Olympic sport. The 2016 Kabaddi World Cup has just begun in Ahmedabad, and as an England player I am very excited to be representing my country in one of the world’s fastest growing sports.
My kabaddi journey began three years ago while working in Bangladesh. I competed in a small competition in the village I lived, between a couple of local teams. The game started late in the afternoon, and a large crowd gathered on the school field. We made a makeshift court with flour.
Almost as soon as we began to play, a crack of lightning illuminated an ominous sky. The monsoon rains started hammering the dusty ground and the court turned into thick, slippery mud. We all got cut on stones but we didn’t notice. All that went through our minds was winning. The atmosphere was electrifying. I never really used to like sport. I never understood what it was that fans got from it, until that day. I was so invested and emotional. I had never felt so alive.
In the end we lost, but it was close all the way. I was disappointed but also ecstatic. I knew I had found my sport and I was determined to play it again. Little did I know, I had begun a journey that would take me from that small village field, all the way to the World Cup.
Two years later I began studying at the London School of Economics and got involved in their kabaddi club. Kabaddi in the UK is largely a varsity sport, centred around elite institutions such as LSE, Imperial College and King’s College London. We play in a number of national and regional tournaments each year, and last year we came second in the country. It was at the end of the season that I was scouted to play for England.
In the UK kabaddi is woefully underfunded. The England team trains in the park most of the time, for want of funds to pay for court hire. Lacking basic equipment like shoes and mats, most of the costs are covered by ourselves. Even tournaments, like our game against Kenya in Nairobi last month, was paid for entirely by the team. It’s a sign of how dedicated we are to kabaddi and the love we have for our sport. A committed group of us have been training daily in London for the last couple of months.
However, Indian businesses are keen to support kabaddi internationally and it is largely private sector investment that has raised the profile of the sport both in India, and globally. Star Sports which sponsors both Pro Kabaddi and the World Cup have been hugely important in professionalising and internationalising the sport. Even amateur teams are receiving support from indian businesses. My own LSE team for instance, has just signed a sponsorship deal with the Bank of Baroda.
At the international level, the Amateur Kabaddi Federation of India, supported by Star Sports, have sent professional coaches to train many of the World Cup teams. Our own coach, Jagmohan has been in kabaddi for decades and has trained Pro Kabaddi teams like the Telugu Titans, as well as national teams such as India and Bangladesh.
The opportunity to train with a professional like Jagmohan has been fantastic. I learnt more in the few weeks he was with us, than in the whole two years I have been playing. The work of the AKF and Star Sports has launched kabbadi onto the world stage and turned a bunch of university students like us, into a force to be reckoned with.
The 2016 World Cup is taking place in the brand new TransStadia Stadium, the largest of its kind in the whole of Asia. Competitors come from all five olympic geographies and represent both established kabaddi nations like Iran and Bangladesh, as well as pioneer countries such as Kenya and England.
The rapid professionalisation and internationalisation of kabaddi, thanks to a wellspring of private investment and support, has put kabaddi on the map. Let’s hope that in the not too distant future we’ll see it at the Olympics too. Perhaps then, India can break its historic trend and chart a new course to olympic victory.