Sport has a need for speed. As athletes around the world, and across sports, are getting fitter and faster, television executives and sports bosses are thinking up new ways to speed up games, truncate times, cut down on dead air, for easy, quick consumption for the younger demographic.
Cricket currently revolves around T20, tennis has done away with five sets for men except for the Grand Slams and is using the Next Gen ATP Finals to experiment with innovations. International hockey is now played in four quarters of 15 minutes rather than two 35-minute halves.
Kabaddi, once played on dusty grounds by strong men, has undergone a transformation of its own in the last 35 years. More so in the last eight years, when the sport was packaged into the TV spectacle called Pro Kabaddi, India’s second most-watched sports league. As season 9 of the league nears its conclusion, speed, rather than strength and power, has become the biggest asset.
“If you look back, the popularity of kabaddi is built on a big, powerful athlete going into the opponent’s court, and four-five defenders trying to tackle him,” says Raju Bhavsar, member of the Indian team that won gold at the 1990 Asian Games.
People still talk with awe of Balwinder Singh, one of the legends of Indian kabaddi – nicknamed the Crownless King of Kabaddi. The towering player from Punjab was, at around 125 kg, one of the heaviest players, but still agile, and was known to bulldoze opponents.
“About 80 per cent of the players were like me, around 80-85 kgs,” adds Bhavsar. “But the remaining 20 per cent players were huge. They were the pillars of their team. Players like Balwinder Singh and Sukhvinder Singh from Punjab, Sagar Bandekar from Maharashtra, Bhaskar Rai from Karnataka – all of them were 100 plus, but had outstanding skill. They knew how to use that body weight or play while being that heavy, that was one of the highlights of the game. They had amazing footwork and agility,” says Bhavsar. “Catching someone like that, people would flock in for that.”
But Balwinder, who led India to gold at the 1989 South Asian Federation (SAF) Games, could not be a part of the squad that was sent to Beijing, China for the 1990 Asian Games as kabaddi debuted as a medal sport. The reason? He didn’t make the weight cut.
In an attempt to make kabaddi more international, certain changes were introduced. The playing surface changed from mud to mat, to make it more accessible to athletes from other countries. The sport also did away with its strongmen.
“About 20-25 years back, there was no weight category in kabaddi,” says E Prasad Rao, coach of India’s 1990 Asian Games team, who currently serves as the technical director of Pro Kabaddi. “It was open for all. When we went abroad, countries like Japan, Korea, Nepal, Thailand, they all had small structures. They said that no body contact sport is open. Be it boxing, wrestling, taekwondo, judo – they all have weight categories.”
While there may be some merit in that argument, all the aforementioned sports are individual, one-on-one contact sport. As a team sport, the fairer comparison would have been with other contact, team sports, like rugby or American football, which does not adhere to any weight restriction.
Pro Kabaddi, which is supposedly an open tournament, has put the weight cap at 85 kg. Which means most of the bigger, stronger athletes like Maninder Singh (Bengal Warriors) or Siddharth Desai (Telugu Titans) are playing under their preferred body weight. This not only stops them from truly flexing their muscles but also leaves them vulnerable to injury.
“The ace up that players’ sleeve is his strength and power. He knows how to use it, but you have taken that away by putting the weight restriction,” adds Bhavsar. “That directly hurts the players’ performance, and eventually the sport.”
Of the players with most raid points this season, Maninder is the only one in the top-5 who still relies on power. The rest, be it Bengaluru Bulls ace Bharat, Arjun Deshwal of Jaipur Pink Panthers or Naveen Kumar, who spearheaded Dabang Delhi’s title-run last season, are much leaner and raid with restless energy, using pace and quick changes in direction to catch rival defenders off-guard.
“It was all about power earlier, now it's about speed and mind,” says Fazel Atrachali, former Iran captain and current captain of Puneri Paltan. “As a captain, I've been playing here (Pro Kabaddi) and in Iran for a long time. Kabaddi has become more difficult now because earlier kabaddi was only about power. Seven, eight years ago, no raider would come like this (rapid footwork and with speed). Raiders came without much movement, they wanted to use power. Now players like Mohit Goyat, Aslam Inamdar... even for a second they're not stopping on the mat. They're always jogging, jumping, dubki, speed... that's more difficult now for defenders,” says Atrachali.
More reforms came in — the bonus line was introduced. Like cricket, where batters are the prima donnas of the team, kabaddi is often highlighted by the raiders. More points equal to greater excitement. Before 2014, a player could go in and raid for as long as they could hold their breath. In 2014, the raid time was restricted to 30 seconds and Pro Kabaddi introduced the do-or-die raid – the third raid after two empty raids. All of this was to increase the speed of the game, make it more TV friendly and turn it into a thrill-a-minute rollercoaster.
That breathless action has powered Pro Kabaddi to success. The downside, however, is that while players are now required to be quicker, they do so on a surface that doesn’t naturally support it. Unlike on the mud ground, which had a top layer of fine powder that aids sliding, mat leads to a stop-and-start movement that takes a toll on the joints.
“On mat, your body gets tired much earlier,” says former player Sangram Manjrekar, who is currently with Puneri Paltan as their strength and conditioning coach. “There is almost double the pressure on the joints when playing on mat. That’s why the number of injuries has gone up. The emphasis on fitness is not just because the game has become faster but also for injury prevention.”
Also, the leaner, faster players, don’t have the muscle mass to stand up to the pummelling the body takes in a combative sport like kabaddi.
“Someone who weighs 70kg might have the speed, but it is a contact sport, there is a higher chance that they will get injured,” Manjrekar explains. “Weight should not be in fat for any athlete. But the more muscle mass you have, the less impact on bones, ligaments or other tissues. Muscle mass takes the load and makes you stronger. Pro Kabaddi has shortened players’ careers, maybe because of injury or because of load management.”
A look at the team rosters proves the points. Most of the players from Season 1 have faded out – Deepak Niwas Hooda, Maninder and Rahul Chaudhuri are the only star raiders that remain, though not all three are necessarily the big performers in their respective teams. The shelf-life of players, especially raiders, has reduced considerably, with most of them struggling to string together more than three successful seasons.
“Dhakka marke, push karke, pull karke, woh kabaddi dhere dhere nikal gaya,” admits Rao. “It's not the strength-oriented old kabaddi. Now it's about speed, explosive pace and agility.”
The patient, waiting cat-and-mouse game has given way to frantic action. Is kabaddi the better for it?
Deepti Patwardhan is a freelance sportswriter based in Mumbai