Taking charge of an Indian raiding unit, comprising speedy youngsters like Aslam Inamdar, Arjun Deshwal and Naveen Kumar, Pawan Kumar Sehrawat looked like a throwback to the times when kabaddi was about power and strength. But the barrel-chested Sehrawat was just the man India needed, as they went on a mission to bring back the Asian Games gold.
After comprehensive wins over other teams in the men’s kabaddi competition at the 2022 Asian Games in Hangzhou, India came across old foes Iran in the final. Sehrawat was again in the thick of things. He not only scored a Super 10 against one of the best defensive units in the sport, but was also a cool and calculating captain, making sure he makes the most of the resources at his disposal. India defeated Iran 33-29 in the final to claim the gold medal they had lost at the 2018 Asian Games—the only time India did not win a gold in the men’s kabaddi competition.
“I enjoy the extra responsibility of a captain. It’s a privilege to lead a bunch of such talented players,” he tells Mint. “At the Asian Games, we had something to prove as a team. And that’s what we did. The team management and I told the players to play their game fearlessly. We had told the raiders to do their job and not worry about getting caught. And when we needed them to step up in defence, they did that too. The final went very close, there were times when we were trailing as well, but in our minds, we knew we are not going to lose this match. I feel like we won the psychological battle.”
After the match, Sehrawat had said regaining the gold was like getting back something that was stolen in a robbery. The Asian Games, which is possibly the biggest prize on offer in kabaddi, also provided a perfect platform for him to prove he was back at his best.
Last year, the 27-year-old was signed up by the Tamil Thalaivas, from Bengaluru Bulls, at a record bid of ₹2.26 crores, making him the most expensive player in League history. But Sehrawat picked up a knee injury in his team’s very first game of the season and had to undergo an ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) surgery.
“After the surgery, I spent five to six months in rehab in Bellary,” he says. “During that phase I had to make sure I make myself strong again. It took me almost six months to get back on the mat. Fitness is the main concern. If you are fit, keeping active, then it doesn’t take long to regain your skills.”
Sehrawat emerged from the recovery process a changed man. The raider is known for his power and athleticism, and has picked up the moniker, ‘Hi-Flyer’ for his frog leaps over defenders and bulldozing his way to safety. But the player is the first to admit he is lazy and didn’t particularly like going to the gym before.
During his rehab, he had to focus on gym workouts, strength and core training to get back on his feet. At 27, he believes he is in the best shape of his life. The explosive energy he has worked on building has translated onto the mat. Sehrawat led the team from the front to a title win at the Asian Kabaddi Championships in June this year. That tournament helped the young Indian side gain international experience and Sehrawat sharpen his captaincy skills.
One of the top raiders in the country, Sehrawat is already a proven entity in Pro Kabaddi. He is fifth in the list of the most raid points in the League—987 in 105 matches—and was the most successful raider in seasons 6, 7 and 8. His performance in the two continental events this year brought him back in the spotlight. Despite missing out last season due to injury, Sehrawat fetched another record bid at the auctions for the 2023-24 Pro Kabaddi season. He has been signed by Telugu Titans for ₹2.605 crores for the new season, making him the most expensive player of the League for the second year running.
“I am hungrier to do well this season after what happened last year,” he says. “More than pressure of the price tag, I feel the responsibility to do well. The money that they have put on me, I feel I have to perform up to the mark. Everyone in the team is expecting a lot from me, they want to get to the knockouts. I have to justify that faith in me.”
Sehrawat is now the top dog in the League, but in 2014 when Pro Kabaddi hit the TV screens to begin one of the most unlikely, but inspiring tales of success, kabaddi was strictly a hobby for him. “I have been following Pro Kabaddi since the first season,” he says. “But at that time, I wasn’t serious about the game, I would just play it for enjoyment.”
It was Bengaluru Bulls coach Randhir Singh who discovered Sehrawat during a trial for Northern Railways. Singh helped him bag a job with Railways in 2015 and brought him to the Bengaluru franchise in 2016 for the third season of the League.
“I remember my Pro Kabaddi debut well,” he says. “My first point was bonus point against Delhi.” Even though Sehrawat’s career in Pro-Kabaddi didn’t take off till 2018, when he scored a total 282 points, the Railways job—he used to work as a Ticket Collector at New Delhi Railway station—helped him contribute to the family income. His family lived off the income from a small grocery shop back then.
The riches from the League helped him construct a home for his family and provide them with financial security. Now, Sehrawat is solely focussed on building, and rebuilding, his legacy in the sport.
Deepti Patwardhan is a Mumbai-based sportswriter.