There is something stirring about watching people excel at something one has failed at miserably. Almost everyone in India, regardless of status or gender, has tried to play (or at least watched) kho kho at some point in their life. Even if only on muddy school fields, to get away from the boredom of afternoon lessons. So when Ultimate Kho Kho (UKK) hit TV screens this August, it was bound to evoke nostalgia.
But this wasn’t the game of our childhood. This was kho kho in beast mode. Players sprinted, stretched, leapt on a bright blue mat, turning this old, rustic game into a new-age spectacle.
Kho kho is the latest sport to get a franchise-based league of its own. The six-team UKK, held from 14 August-4 September at the Balewadi Sports Complex in Pune, Maharashtra, concluded in a thrilling finale last Sunday when Odisha Juggernauts turned the game around with just 14 seconds remaining, to record a 46-45 win over the Telugu Yoddhas.
Long after the glittering gold confetti showered upon the champions had settled, the players, enjoying their new-found spotlight, ambled across the field of play that had been their stage for the past few weeks. Each of the 143 players who competed had contributed to the success of the league. Having spent long years in anonymity, they had finally been given a platform to showcase their athleticism and skills. And they had made it count.
“We never thought kho kho will get a platform like this,” says Sanjeev Sharma, the veteran coach who guided Gujarat Giants to a third-place finish. “When we used to play, we would travel to national tournaments on train, without reservation—we would sit outside the bathrooms. At that time, we used to hear things that maybe kho kho will be played on the international level. But our time ran out. But I am happy that in my lifetime I have been able to see the game reach new heights.”
Sport of the soil
Rooted in tradition, and predominantly still played on mud, kho kho had never quite made the mainstream before this. There is an evolutionary simplicity to this game of run and chase but its popularity has been restricted to dusty rural pockets, especially in the state of its birth, Maharashtra. In India, the sport is replete with stories of struggle and perseverance.
Player of the tournament Ramji Kashyap, 22, who represented Chennai Quick Guns in the league, hails from a family of scrap collectors. Another star performer, Vishal (he does not use his second name) of Odisha Juggernauts, started excelling in the sport because it meant an extra glass of milk and sandwiches. “Things were fine till 2012,” says Vishal, who hails from a village close to Delhi. “But my father passed away that year. After that it was difficult for my mother to support the family (Vishal and his four sisters). At that time, we couldn’t even afford milk. Me and one of my sisters would play kho kho. The teacher there was very helpful, she would cook for us. They would encourage us to do well in the sport. As a reward, we got two glasses of milk instead of one, four slices of bread instead of two.” He had to pick up odd jobs during the pandemic, the latest of which was as a delivery agent for an e-commerce company.
His Odisha teammate, Dilip Khandavi, 20, hails from an agricultural family in the tribal belt of Maharashtra. A native of Krishnanagar in Surgana taluka in Nashik district, he was working on his family’s paddy fields till recently. “For almost five years, I was in a sports hostel in Nashik. But after the pandemic struck, I returned to my village,” he says. “For the last one year I didn’t play kho kho at all since there is neither a kho kho ground nor any players in our village. I didn’t even know my name was up for the UKK draft. It was my coach in Nashik, Mandar Deshmukh, who had submitted it. He was the one who told me I was selected and had to come to Pune for the league.”
Khandavi is the only one of five brothers who has had the chance to study—he’s in the final year of BA—and pursue sport. “When my family heard that I had been selected as a Grade A player, with a salary of ₹5 lakh (for the first season), they were very happy for me. They told me, ‘Go make a name for yourself.’” And that is exactly what he has done. The 5ft-tall Khandavi was a telling presence in the final and won the defender of the match award. With short, quick steps, he eluded the rival attackers and remained unbeaten on the two occasions he took the mat.
“There are so many players in the league who are from impoverished backgrounds,” says Ashwani Kumar Sharma, coach of the winning Odisha team. “For some of them, they can only eat if they earn money that day. This league will go a long way in helping them financially.”
The windfall has already begun. In the inaugural year, UKK announced a total prize purse of ₹2 crore, with the winning team earning a prize cheque of ₹1 crore. The Odisha government, owners of the Juggernauts, announced a cash reward of ₹1 crore for the season 1 champions.
From mud to mat
Kho kho was introduced in the South Asian Games in 2016, with India winning gold, Bangladesh silver and Nepal bronze. At home, the attempts to enable it to prosper as a sport had begun a decade ago. In 2011, the prize money for the senior nationals went up from ₹50,000 to ₹5 lakh. In 2014, the national championship was held on mat for the very first time. After wrestling and kabaddi, kho kho became the third “sport of the soil” to transition from mud to mat, outdoor to indoor.
“There is lot of difference between playing on mud and on mat,” says Gujarat Giants captain Ranjan Shetty, who has been playing the sport for the last 20 years and has seen its rise up close. The 32-year-old, whose father owns a paan shop in Airoli, Navi Mumbai, has played eight senior national tournaments and was thinking of retiring from the sport last year. But the league has given him a new lease of life. “You don’t need that much strength on the mud. The stop-and-go is more difficult on mat, it needs more stamina, agility. More shocking on the body as well. You need to spend time in the gym, do weight training and strengthen muscles to take the load off joints. I have started doing that because after seeing this league, the level of play here, I want to play for at least another two-three years.”
The soft, springy mat, where players expend a lot of energy, has increased the chance of injury, especially to joints and ligaments. But it was seen as an essential step in making the game more viable for export—since getting athletes, especially from developed countries, to play barefoot on mud would be a difficult proposition. The use of a mat also made a franchise-based league like UKK possible.
Re-packaging a sport
Considering that kabaddi was the first indigenous sport to not only get its own league but turn it into a stirring success story, kho kho had a tough act to follow. Pro Kabaddi League (PKL) had set the template: It had shown how to package and market a rustic sport to an urban audience. And when you entered the UKK arena in Pune—it was a one-venue league in the inaugural year—the similarities were striking: be it the swirling disco lights, the loud music thumping in the arena, the dugouts, the players sprinting out of the tunnel and regaling the audience with an overt show of athleticism, the referee reviews, or the showboating.
But kho kho is a different sport, played at a breathtaking pace. “We always knew that comparisons (with PKL) will be done,” says UKK CEO and league commissioner Tenzing Niyogi. “But the fact of the matter is, one needs to learn from the best practices. A lot of leagues from 2014-20 came and went. I did whatever I thought were the best practices, derived out of all these leagues.”
Like PKL, UKK tweaked the game, taking television, and their audience, into consideration. The court dimensions were reduced from 27x16m to 22x16m, the duration of each turn was brought down from nine to seven minutes. Elements of drama, like the “wazir” (one player on the attacking team who can run in any direction) and powerplay (two wazirs at a time during one turn), were introduced. Though sky dive and pole dive, peak athletic moves, already existed, each was now worth one extra point. Carefully considered camera angles turned it into a TV spectacle.
“The focus was to get a great format on air, where people fall in love with the sport,” says Niyogi. “Change in format was something new to India. Everyone has played kho kho but on TV we wanted it to look different. That was the magic of it.” Camps were held to make sure the players got used to the new format. They were even given makeovers to get them camera-ready.
Some teams went farther than others. The wazirs in the Gujarat team were made to dye streaks of blue into their hair. “Our manager wanted us to do that so we stand out,” says Abhinandan Patil, who won the Top Wazir of the tournament award. “My family was not too happy about it,” chuckles the bright-eyed player.
Patil, 21, is one of 22 players in the league who come from a small corner of Maharashtra called Ichalkaranji, in Kolhapur district. “All the 22 players hail from one gali (lane) in Ichalkaranji,” Patil says. Maharashtra, the first state to give public sector jobs to kho kho players, continues to be the epicentre of the sport in India but athletes from other regions have started taking it seriously too.
“Since the prize money at the national tournaments has increased, and players have started getting some financial rewards, the game has started picking up,” says Sharma. “There has been talk about UKK for the past three years—we first heard about it in 2019—and that has also brought in players from other states. The competition is now increasing.”
In many ways, the UKK has used a tried and tested formula to bridge the gap between sport and entertainment. There were familiar trappings like the presence of Bollywood celebrities during the finals. But when you cut through the glitz, the kho kho league succeeded in presenting the sport front and centre, providing players with a platform most had never even dreamt of.
Deepti Patwardhan is a Mumbai-based sportswriter.