And so it returns. Next week. After 20 months. The professional kabaddi mat, the athletes’ kabaddi chant, that familiar rhythm of the anthem—khel kabaddi (play kabaddi)— the thumping music, the high-octane TV advertisements. That game of tricks and triumphs, jumps and joy, Houdini-like escapes from an opponent’s grasp.
On 22 December, season 8 of the Pro Kabaddi league will begin in Bengaluru, complete with covid-19 protocols. Over the next 74 days, 12 teams will fight it out for the title, which currently rests with the Bengal Warriors. Some teams have been rebuilt, other squads have retained familiar faces. Raiders were in demand once again at the August auction, with players such as Pardeep Narwal and Siddharth Desai attracting bids over the one crore threshold.
There are very few indoor contact sports that have captivated audiences in India the way kabaddi has. In its inaugural season in 2014, the Pro Kabaddi league notched up 435 million viewers, second only to the 2014 Indian Premier League T20 cricket tournament that year, which had a total viewership of 552 million, according to data from the Broadcast Audience Research Council India. The league has since became an annual affair. In fact, two editions—seasons 3 and 4—were held in 2016.
As people familiarised themselves with this modern rendition of one of the oldest games of Indian origin, the league grew from eight city-based franchises to 12 teams by season 5, in 2017. While viewership numbers have fluctuated since, the high of India’s 2016 Kabaddi World Cup victory against Iran drove the sport’s popularity among the masses.
“Kabaddi always had the potential to make it big. It was only a question about how you put it in front of the audience (in terms of the broadcast and glamour). It’s a combative, body-to-body contact sport. Fourteen players playing it out on a small court—this was something new for people who hadn’t seen kabaddi before,” says former Indian kabaddi player and Arjuna awardee Raju Bhavsar.
It’s not just the speed, agility and acrobatics on display or the nail-biting matches. It’s also, Bhavsar says, about the quick-interval high points in a kabaddi duel. “All this was very catchy,” he says on the phone. “In the past, I have spoken to journalists from other countries and they said that every sport has a high point. For example, in a game of football, people get off their seats whenever play approaches the 18-yard box. But sometimes, when a team is up six nil and there are just five minutes left, you know nothing much will happen next. But in kabaddi these high points come every 30 seconds. You expect something to happen in every raid. A lead of 10-12 points gets overturned in a matter of minutes. Of course, there was always a connection with Indian viewers, who knew that this was their game.”
After a no-show last year owing to the pandemic, season 8 is set to start in four days, with fixtures announced till 20 January. But it returns to a completely different atmosphere. Off the mat, there will be no fans, no scope for travel to locations or stadiums across India. More importantly, the players and almost every individual involved in the league will find themselves in a bio-bubble for the entire duration of the tournament.
On the mat, players and teams will be looking to recapture form. Some of the players will be returning from long injury lay-offs. Narwal, the young raiding sensation and now the most expensive player in the league’s history, will have to prove his mettle for a new outfit.
The challenge of returning to a new atmosphere
When the league’s seventh season concluded in October 2019, no one could have predicted how the world of sport would change in the next year or so. The covid-19 pandemic forced championships and tournaments around the world to suspend or reschedule matches. For the first time since World War II, the Wimbledon Championships were cancelled. Kabaddi was no different.
In a statement on 28 November 2020, the Pro Kabaddi league too announced its decision to postpone the season till it was safe enough to resume. Anupam Goswami, the league commissioner and CEO of Mashal Sports, the organisers of Pro Kabaddi, says that while restarting the league will take “some doing”, the competition has forged a strong connection with viewers.
“When we did season 1, there was a spectacular effect (of kabaddi on viewers). There’s a deep cultural cognizance of the sport,” says Goswami in a video call. “Apart from having the best kabaddi players in the world, the league has also been highly competitive. There have been five champions in just seven seasons. Out of the 12 teams, 11 have participated in the play-offs. There’s balanced competition. These are some of the values we will be reminding viewers of with proof of achievement.”
Season 8 will not be short of challenges, the biggest, of course, being covid-19. For the first time, the league will play out without fans in the stands. Goswami says they are working with the broadcaster Star Sports to make the competition a “stimulating and engaging” experience for viewers. A new “triple header” format, for example, has been introduced: Three matches will take place daily during the first four days of the competition.
More importantly, the league will be held at a single venue in Bengaluru, moving away from the caravan format of previous seasons. All 12 teams will be part of an integrated bio-bubble that will see them stay and play at the same venue—the Sheraton Grand Bengaluru Whitefield Hotel & Convention Centre.
For the kabaddi players, the bio-bubble will be an entirely new experience. Sports and counselling psychologist Divya Jain, head of psychological services at Fortis Healthcare, Gurugram, Haryana, says what will be important is how players choose to utilise their time. “I think the biggest difficulty (of being in a bio-bubble) is the sense of social isolation and being away from family. This is similar for all athletes, regardless of any sport,” says Jain. “The second is the disruption in the day-to-day routines. You end up spending more time in your room. This can impact one’s mood as well. It’s key to build that positive social connection with your team members in such situations,” she adds.
Having attended a few Pro Kabaddi matches in Delhi’s Thyagaraj Indoor Stadium, I can tell you that kabaddi players feed off the energy from the crowd, perhaps more than some other sports. “Of course, it is a little difficult because we have never been in a bio-bubble. But I am delighted that kabaddi is returning after almost a two-year gap,” says Vikash Kandola of the Haryana Steelers. “We exercise in our rooms as much as possible. In the other free time we have, we look at our old matches to see how we can improve going forward,” the 23-year-old raider adds.
Coaches are trying to do what they can. Anup Kumar, a former captain of the Indian kabaddi team who has won the title with U Mumba in the past, took up the coaching role at Puneri Paltan, the league’s Pune franchise, in season 7. Kumar says that apart from ensuring their physical fitness, he’s constantly speaking to his players and reminding them to “enjoy” the season that lies ahead.
“I feel everyone who has been associated with kabaddi has had a tough time because of the pandemic. It’s hard luck,” says Kumar. “But I think all the players, especially the new young players, have kept constant focus on their fitness plans when they were home during the lockdown and we might see some really exciting performances from these young players. I agree that we will miss the fans but I don’t think we have an option. We have already prepared the players. They know the fans will be rooting for them from their homes.”
Can Pardeep Narwal deliver for UP?
For Pardeep Narwal, it’s a move from the green of the Patna Pirates, where he won three back-to-back Pro Kabaddi titles between seasons 3 and 5 , to the red and blue of the UP Yoddha.
One of the standout raiders over the past few seasons, Narwal, 24, became the highest bid player in the league’s history when the UP-based franchise bagged him for ₹1.65 crore at the season 8 auction this August. There’s perhaps justification for the price tag. Narwal currently holds the stupendous record of most raid points scored in Pro Kabaddi history at 1,160, including the most points (369) scored by a player in a single season.
He’s also the best exponent of the dubki, an escape move where a raider ducks, or dips, low off the ground below a chain of defenders and then hoists himself back up to safety.
Bhavsar says Narwal is a player who thrives with a good supporting raider in the team. “Pardeep plays his own game. He only has one aim: scoring points. The question is how fit he is for the upcoming season.”
How the UP coaching team handles Narwal will be critical. “He has had a very good working relationship with Ram Meher Singh, coach of the Patna Pirates. Most of his career, he has been with Singh. We have to see if the UP coaches can do the same,” says Bhavsar.
Narwal, for one, isn’t feeling the pressure of the hefty price tag and is relishing the chance to play for a new team. “To start off, I am closer to home now, but yes, on a serious note, I am looking forward to my season ahead with UP Yoddha,” he says. “They have been a strong unit and what always intrigued me about them was their fighting spirit. Season after season, you knew that this was a team you could never take lightly and now to be a part of this team indeed feels very good.”
The other players to watch out for
Naveen Kumar | Dabang Delhi (301 raid points in season 7)
Naveen Kumar was at the forefront of Dabang Delhi’s raiding department as they marched into the finals of season 7. Quick, nimble-footed and blessed with incredible reflexes, the 21-year-old has surprised many with his tenacious raiding skills, especially his ability to pull off the running hand touch. This involves a raider rushing towards a defender and extending his entire body for a quick touch with his hand before escaping to the safety of his own half.
In season 6, he became the first player born in the 2000s to feature in the league and finished his maiden season as Delhi’s top scorer with 177 points, leading them to their first appearance in the league play-offs.
He carried this rich vein of form into 2019 for season 7—scoring a remarkable 301 raid points—but couldn’t take the Delhi team all the way to the title. They lost out to Bengal Warriors in the final.
Kumar hopes they can make that final jump in season 8. “We had practised so much and put in a lot of hard work to reach the final last season. But they (the Bengal team) reached the final for a reason as well. We went into the final on level pegging. You can say it was luck and 1-2 points going their way—they snatched the lead from us and we never recovered,” says Kumar.
Delhi have also added the experienced duo of raider Ajay Thakur and all-rounder Manjeet Chhillar to their ranks. These are two players Kumar could benefit from hugely. “We have so much experience in the squad. Everyone from our captain Joginder Narwal to Sandeep Narwal. They all speak to the young players on where we can improve our raiding performance. As for Ajay bhaisaab, I consider him my idol and he has always taught me a thing or two about raiding. We are all bonding well.”
Pawan Kumar Sehrawat | Bengaluru Bulls (346 raid points - Top-scoring raider in season 7)
In season 6, young raider Pawan Sehrawat was the shining light for the Bengaluru Bulls as they won their maiden Pro Kabaddi title. He scored an impressive 271 raid points in that campaign. Fast forward to season 7 and Sehrawat carried the Bulls to the semi-finals yet again on the back of some sparkling performances—ending season 7 as the top-scoring raider with 346 points.
The Bulls, however, met their match in the semis, losing to Delhi. Sehrawat was retained by Bengaluru ahead of season 8. “We reached the semi-finals in season 7 but the aim this year is to go all the way and win it,” Sehrawat says on the phone. “Dabang Delhi were the better side on that occasion. But I think we have built a strong team for the new season.”
A key part of the Bulls’ offence this season could rely on the combination of Sehrawat and new recruit Chandran Ranjit, their most expensive buy at the season 8 player auction at ₹80 lakh. Ranjit had a formidable partnership with Naveen Kumar for the Delhi squad in season 7. Sehrawat says he’s hoping to forge something similar with his new teammate.
“I am excited to play along with Ranjit again (having played with him for the Gujarat Giants in season 5). He’s a good supporting raider and I think we will have a lovely left-right raiding combination that will help the team,” Sehrawat adds.
Surender Nada | Haryana Steelers (80 tackle points in season 5)
A seasoned league campaigner, Surender Nada is renowned for the ankle hold, an amazing defensive skill where the defender grabs holds of the raider’s trailing ankle, often when they are darting towards the midline, to force them back and create an opening for a tackle. It’s a move that requires grip and brute strength.
The left-corner specialist defender’s season 6 outing ended abruptly owing to a shoulder injury; he did not take part in season 7. This season, Haryana Steelers will be hoping he can recreate his defensive form of season 5, when he scored 80 tackle points in just 21 matches.
“It’s really good to have an experienced player like him in the team. He’s so good at making calls on the mat,” says Vikash Kandola, a raider and Nada’s teammate. “Raiders think twice before going towards him because of his ankle hold. That also gives us a tactical advantage.”
Fazel Atrachali | U Mumba (More than 80 tackle points in season 7)
Over the years, Pro Kabaddi has become a great platform not only for home-grown talent but also the very best in the sport from across the world. There is perhaps no better overseas left corner defender in the league than Iran’s Fazel Atrachali.
Atrachali is not only an elegant defender but also quite quick for someone with a big, 6ft frame, which helps him execute the dash—a move where a defender sprints across the mat and uses his momentum to get the opposition raider out of bounds—to devastating effect. Last season, the Iranian was the only defender to score more than 80 tackle points. He will once again be expected to play a key role in U Mumba’s defence in season 8.