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Pro Kabaddi’s next raid machine

Siddharth Desai, touted as the next big thing in Pro Kabaddi, is set to become the joint-fastest to score 100 raid points in his debut season

Desai making a raid during U Mumba’s match against Jaipur Pink Panthers.
Desai making a raid during U Mumba’s match against Jaipur Pink Panthers.

Siddharth Desai’s parents wanted him to be an engineer. But in his debut season at the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL), he’s been more of a wrecking ball.

Tall and muscular, Desai has used his athleticism, reach and a nifty skill set to flatten the best defences in the league. In October, the U Mumba player became the fastest to score 50 raid points. It took Desai only four matches to reach the landmark, one match less than kabaddi legends such as Anup Kumar and Ajay Thakur. After seven matches, Desai has 97 raid points and the best average this season: 13.86 raid points per match. He also has 17 do-or-die raid points. He missed the match against Pune on 3 November, owing to an injury, and came as a substitute on Friday in the game against Jaipur but failed to score.

“I used to play kabaddi as a child but I only started taking it seriously since the start of the PKL," says the powerful raider, who is as chirpy off the mat as he is serious on it. “I wanted to make a career out of it. Whatever skills I have, I have learnt from watching the sport on television. Like Anup Kumar’s toe touch. My elder brother, Suraj, also plays kabaddi professionally, so I copied his kick."

The Pro Kabaddi League bred generation of players is already here, and it’s looking fitter and faster than ever.

Born in Phulewadi, in Maharashtra’s Kolhapur district, Desai’s childhood flitted between academics and helping his family out on their farmland. He would be tasked with pulling the weeds out; “A tough job that usually required two people," Desai recalls. But he managed to juggle this with his studies. Desai remembers scoring 82% in his class X board exams. He also completed a bachelor’s degree in science but somewhere along the line, his academic career got derailed.

Meanwhile, Suraj, who is one and a half years older than him, joined the Indian Army at age 18 and has been playing kabaddi for Services ever since. The younger brother, however, stuck to the gym. “But that was only to become big and strong, and look good. Not for sport," recalls Desai.

Pro Kabaddi was Suraj’s dream. He even got drafted by the Delhi franchise in 2017 but a knee injury ruled him out of the league this season. “After watching Pro Kabaddi, I thought I could make a career out of it," Desai says. “I used to participate in local tournaments on mud. After PKL, since I wanted to play kabaddi professionally, I joined a club in Baner (a suburb of Pune), called Satej Kabbadi Singh. That’s the first time I played on mat."

Success followed soon enough. Desai was part of the Maharashtra team that won the Senior National Championships in January for the first time in 11 years. He was then picked up by U Mumba for 36.4 lakh at the auction before Pro Kabaddi season 6, and has been the force behind the team’s revival this season. After playing three successive finals in the first three editions, the Mumbai franchise lost momentum in the last two editions. But this year, things are looking better. Of the eight matches that U Mumba have played so far, the team has won six, drawn one and lost one.

Standing at 6ft, 2 inches, Desai uses his massive wingspan to prey on rival defenders. He doesn’t have one signature move, like a dubki of a Pardeep Narwal or a toe touch of Anup Kumar, but he uses all these tricks fairly well. His height makes the playing half look smaller, giving him a better chance to stretch past the midline. At times, Desai uses his strength to barge past defenders, and has even carried them across the midline on a couple of occasions.

He is also one of the few players who can raid from either side, which opens up a whole range of strategic options for his team.

“It’s great that he can do that," says U Mumba captain Fazel Atrachali. “He can attack both corners. So I can ask Siddharth to attack whichever side or player is weak."

“We wanted young players like him, who will play with the team and for the team," adds Atrachali. “Not stars."

But Desai is well on his way to being one. His face and ripped torso adorn massive hoardings in Mumbai as the Pro Kabaddi caravan moved into the city this week. Desai looks set to wreck it till he makes it.

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