There are certain moments that remain etched in our memory forever. For me, 26 July 2014 sits right up there as I think about the first time the lights shone bright and India’s own sport of kabaddi was resurrected from the mud to the glitz and glamour of the mat at the National Sports Club of India in Mumbai.
Looking back, it was a night that truly changed the landscape of Indian sport, and even with sporting and Bollywood royalty sitting courtside, it was U Mumba and Jaipur Pink Panthers players, Anup Kumar, Rishank Devadiga, Shabeer Bapu, Maninder and Jasvir Singh, among others, who were the true stars, forcing me to the edge of my seat for 40 gripping minutes in the commentary box. Kabaddi was here to stay!
On the personal front, there’s a lot I owe to a sport whose rules I struggled to remember ahead of that fortuitous day in 2014. Coming from a family deeply involved with sport for three generations, I was often ridiculed in my own home for watching sports like Sepak Takraw (a form of Malaysian kick volleyball) or some random replay of an Asian Games table tennis match. So, when I heard murmurs of an opening for an English commentator for a new kabaddi league, I was intrigued. Pro Kabaddi (PKL) gave me my sports commentary debut and I remember the murmurs and sarcastic chuckles in the office, with jibes such as, “what’s next, a Gilli Danda league?”
I will admit I didn’t have the faintest idea of how large it would become. I just saw it as an opportunity to build something from scratch, much like my own fledgling second career as a broadcaster. Having been a professional cricketer, I don’t think “kabaddi commentator” featured in my bucket list but kabaddi accepted me and opened the doors for me as a broadcaster for the Indian Premier League, cricket World Cups, badminton, hockey, Wimbledon, Olympics and more. And it wasn’t just that. I even met my wife because of kabaddi and today, I am a co-founder of a phygital kabaddi-based startup, Kabaddi Adda, that is working towards the transformation of the sport from the ground up while serving as a content platform for 365 days of kabaddi engagement.
My debt to kabaddi is but a drop in the ocean compared to the thousands of lives that the sport has truly transformed. Players gave their lives to the sport for decades and generations because of their pure love for it, or at best to earn a stable government job. Today, the power of kabaddi is evident, with rural India seeing it as a means to put food not just on their own table but to uplift entire villages or towns. The sport’s social impact even at this nascent stage is hard to put down in words.
Kabaddi players often weren’t given the same access to nutrition, fitness training or recognition as many other sports, despite dominating their sport with every Asian Games gold medal until 2018. The top player in 2014, Rakesh Kumar, earned ₹12.8 lakh for the first season of Pro Kabaddi. Seven seasons on, Pardeep Narwal is sitting on a cool ₹1.65 crore for the same. That’s a life-changing 14x increase in just seven years for a sport where, just a few years ago, most of the country would have struggled to tell you how many players each side has. Here’s the beauty of it, though. Narwal still lives in his simple abode in Rindhana, Haryana, where I have had the privilege of joining him on the kitchen floor as his mother fed us hot rotis with fresh white butter and ghee made with milk from the cows in their backyard. Several hundred players have made the transition from the muddy ground to the mat but through this transition, they have remained grounded and grateful to the sport.
More than 400 million viewers tune in today to a season of PKL but it doesn’t just stop there. Through Kabaddi Adda, we have started creating the building blocks of the pathway to the big league (think NCAA to the NBA), and the appetite for the sport is staggering. The wider ecosystem of kabaddi is still nascent and disorganised, perhaps similar again to where basketball was in the US in the 1960s—a street sport that was part of the social fabric and needed an organised, digitised push with a little pizzazz. Through the pandemic, Kabaddi Adda’s K7 tournament conducted 110 matches, where more than 430 players under the age of 23 were given a platform to showcase their skills—20 of them have already been handed contracts in Pro Kabaddi. These are youngsters who would wake up at 4.30am, train hard and often pay small sums to play the sport. Now, they are earning contracts running into lakhs of rupees and inspiring others in their villages to feel empowered through sport.
Take the case of Ajith Kumar, who was bought by U Mumba this season for ₹25 lakh. Kumar comes from Saamipillai Nagar, a village of 400 people near Karur in Tamil Nadu, with four brothers who are all kabaddi players. His parents are daily-wage workers who either cut trees or sugar cane and work as “coolies’’ in their spare time. Kumar’s return last season saw the entire village rapt in celebration and has now inspired the emergence of more players who can see it’s possible to realise the dream of earning a living through sport. This empowerment through sport, and its social implications, are perhaps more important than we can imagine in a country like India, especially when it comes to women’s kabaddi and the potential it holds. Parts of rural India still perceive women as a burden on the household, and an attempt to play sport professionally would certainly be frowned upon. But with over 1,900 quality women’s players and packed stands watching local tournaments like the Haryana state selections from Charkhi Dadri, we hope the day isn’t far when female kabaddi players will become breadwinners for their families.
I am constantly asked what it is about the sport that India loves. There isn’t one right answer. Kabaddi is built on core values that resonate with Bharat—trust, honesty and community collaboration. Secondly, the sport transcends generations. You have grandparents who grew up playing the sport and are delighted it’s back. Youngsters today find it “cool”…and therefore, by default, we have the parents’ generation who are actually the “kebab mein haddis” (add-ons) but make it a full blown 40-minute family entertainer. Throw in the fact that it’s our very own contact sport, where the world’s top athletes battle it out with spellbinding action guaranteed every 30 seconds in a controlled environment, and you have eyeballs glued the entire time.
If season 1 of Pro Kabaddi was about educating the viewer, including myself, on the basics of the game and getting them excited, the forthcoming season will be about unravelling new layers to India’s second most watched sport while building new household heroes who will raid our hearts with their athleticism, simplicity and respect for the sport. For decades, kabaddi was perhaps neglected because it carried the tag of a “rural” sport and while the sport was always Bharat ka khel, it’s apparent that India is proud to claim that title again. One World Cup and seven years after that first Pro Kabaddi encounter in 2014, it’s quite clear that a “rural pastime” has turned into an intriguing global phenomenon.
Suhail Chandhok is one of India’s leading sports presenters and commentators, and the co-founder of Kabaddi Adda