A home-grown Indian sport is winning fans far beyond the subcontinent

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A home-grown Indian sport is winning fans far beyond the subcontinent

AT 6PM on a sweltering weekday evening, a street junction in Ahmedabad in western India is abuzz. On a footpath outside a big stadium, a hawker peddles colourful jerseys and wrist bands as young men line up to have the country’s flag painted on their faces. Selfies abound. A long queue snakes around the stadium’s corner, waiting for its gates to be opened. Tilak Patel, an engineering student, has driven six hours with his friends to reach the venue. “It’s worth it,” he says on a day when India is set to take on England—not in a game of cricket, but in the 12-nation World Cup tournament of Kabaddi, an ancient Indian contact sport that has gripped the country. The hometown fans were duly rewarded for their dedication: after two invigorating weeks, India successfully defended its title in the final on October 22nd.

Kabaddi is a cross between freestyle wrestling and rugby that tests speed, agility and power. Two teams of seven players each take turns in dispatching an attacker, known as a “raider”, onto the defender’s turf. To earn points, he must tag an opponent while mumbling “Kabaddi kabaddi” in one long breath, and then hop back in his half. If the raider is wrestled and pinned down by any of the defenders, he is suspended from the game temporarily, until his team wins him back by tackling the opposition’s attacker. Needing only a patch of earth and no equipment, the sport has flourished in the boondocks since time immemorial, but had little backing to become a national phenomenon.

Enter the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL), a glitzy version of the village sport played indoors under disco lights, loud music and cheering fans. Inaugurated in 2014, the PKL is modeled along the lines of the wildly popular Indian Premier League (IPL), the world’s most lucrative cricket circuit. Backed by celebrity owners and corporate honchos, every team must field at least three foreign players in an attempt to glaze the league with an international shine. During its inaugural season, 430m viewers tuned in to watch on television, second only to the IPL’s 552m.

Kabaddi’s rise in India is in part because other sports have failed to impress. Field hockey, formerly India’s national sport, is in an abysmal state. The erstwhile world-beaters that won six consecutive Olympic Gold medals between 1928 and 1956 failed to qualify for the Olympics at Beijing in 2008, and finished last in the London edition. In Rio de Janeiro this year, India at least reached the knock-out stage—for the first time in 36 years. Football’s “Indian Super League”, launched in 2013, is only moderately successful. The sport is devoid of homegrown superstars, and the popular ones in the league are retired international players. Finally, the country appears to show signs of suffering from peak cricket. The recently concluded Test series against New Zealand attracted paltry crowds, at least when compared with the packed stadiums when Australia toured India in 2001.

Facing such a sporting vacuum, Kabaddi has rushed in to fill the void. The game is fast-paced and lively; teams are docked points if they are too defensive, and the winner is declared within 40 minutes, less than that of an episode of popular soap operas in India. The game’s international reputation is not bad either. According to some estimates, it is played in over 65 countries. Its fledgling presence in small pockets across the globe is down to India’s large migrant population. For instance, in England, in the late 1980s, the sport was televised on Channel 4. Two decades after it was introduced in Japan, over 1,000 men play for 30 clubs in Tokyo and Hiroshima. Earlier this month, a few thousand spectators assembled in Fresno County, California, for the “2016 Kabaddi Cup”, now in its 22nd year.

Kabaddi’s ability to borrow skills from other sports easily has helped to broaden its appeal. In South Korea, which upset India in the tournament-opener, Kabaddi is a natural extension of judo and taekwondo. Iran, famous for its achievements in wrestling, took to the sport more easily than others, and is now the second-best side in the world. The sport also has some resemblance to British Bulldog, a tag-based game popular in some circles in England. The current Australian Kabaddi team consists mainly of butch ex-Australian-rules football players, who know a thing or two about tackling and charging.

For all its overnight success, however, the turning point for formalising the game came during the 1990 Asian Games, when Kabaddi moved indoors. Interest spiked in the 2006 event at Doha, when it attracted baying fans in a packed stadium. That was when Charu Sharma, a cricket presenter and the former boss of an IPL cricket team, got the idea of starting a league of his own, convinced owners to buy teams, kept ticket prices low and let the games begin.

A hallmark of the PKL was that it did not only target the best players from across the world. That would have meant having a sport dominated by India, Pakistan and Iran—much like cricket appears to have reached a saturation point with India, England and Australian boards calling the shots. Instead, the PKL sought to recruit rookie players from countries where the sport had a small following. For instance, America’s World Cup team is a motley crew of dreadlocked rappers. Other teams have an engineer, a fisherman, a monk and a shopkeeper among them. Most are still learning the ropes. Kenya’s side learned the game via YouTube, and trained for over two years on athletic turfs. Argentina played its first major competitive match earlier this month.

Still, this bodes well for the internationalisation of the game—at least when compared with the American and Canadian cricket teams, which are flush with members of the Indian diaspora. In honour of the Kenyan team’s spirited performance, their players earned a meeting with the country’s president, and a promise to obtain synthetic mats for training upon their return. Domestic leagues in other countries are taking shape, too. Mauritius, Zimbabwe and Kenya have kicked off their own versions of the PKL, and Pakistan’s Super Kabaddi League is slated to start sometime next month.

The trade-off implicit in this inclusive approach is that matches will continue to be one-sided until the rest of the world starts to catch up. India has won seven consecutive medals at the Asian Games, as well as every edition of the Kabaddi World Cup. But the presence of such a Goliath figure can create irresistible narratives when they eventually fall—witness the 2004 Olympics, in which America’s vaunted basketball team had to settle for a mere bronze. And although India did eventually triumph in the 2016 World Cup, there was plenty of drama along the way. Thailand, Japan and Kenya were in contention for a semi-final slot until the last game of the round-robin stage, and Poland managed to stun the formidable Iranians. In turn, Iran fought remarkably in a thrilling final, and led after the first half before succumbing to the hosts.

The sport, too, has evolved from the rough-and-tumble of the schoolyard version, making it easier to sell to an international audience. Mud has given way to mats, and bare feet to fancy footwear. The rule to disqualify raiders if they draw fresh breath has been scrapped. Instead, a 30-second countdown goes up on a big screen as the attacker sallies forth chanting “Kabaddi Kabaddi”. The revamped rules make purists nervous: whereas the mud pit provides a cushion for players to use as a springboard to outwit defenders, such stunts could cause injuries on synthetic mats. Moreover, teams these days also tend to “play safe” and do not try difficult manoeuvres, grumbles Ramachandra Jadhav, a former player and coach with over 35 years in the game. Nonetheless, Kabaddi continues to retain its essence of rewarding wit and deception over brute force. “If it was all about winning by power, we would have taken the trophy”, says Laventa Oguta, Kenya’s head coach. But she was stymied by a “street-smart” Indian team that “doesn’t let you use your strength.”

Kabaddi has built a strong economic foundation for continued growth. Top players in the PKL earn up to 4m-5m rupees a year ($60,000-$75,000), a hefty sum for players who might otherwise be tilling fields or working in mills. Mr Jadhav reckons that students from over 120 schools grapple in Mumbai’s maidans (fields), up from around 40-50 two years ago. “Even English medium schools have started participating”, he says, illustrating the resurgence of a poor man’s sport. Outside India, the tournament was broadcast live in over 120 countries. Back in Ahmedabad, however, the locals have no use for television. “It’s nothing compared to TV,” says Akshay Patel, a teenager queuing up to enter. “Watching it from inside the stadium is the real thing.”

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