On the kabaddi mat, sometimes the only way is through. In the Pro Kabaddi match against the UP Yoddhas, in Pune on 9 November, the Bengal Warriors had fought back to 37-37 with less than two minutes to go and the UP team had all seven defenders in play when Maninder Singh swaggered in to raid. After keeping the defenders at an arm’s length for a few seconds, he saw the defenders trying to crowd him from the corner of his eye. Singh slithered through the gap between two defenders; he shoulder-charged the final UP defender in the way, Sumit, and dragged him along past the half line.
For the 6-foot-tall raider, this show of brute power is as much of a signature as his thick mohawk and goatee. Singh, who has been doing it since Season 1, is possibly the last of the dying breed of power raiders. At 32, he’s also an older player in a young man’s game. “I learn from young players,” says Singh, the Bengal Warriors captain. “They have their own new skillset. Earlier we used to play with power. Now there are a lot of escape techniques the youngsters have brought to the table. There’s a lot to learn. I talk to them about it a lot. I have learnt a lot from Pardeep (Narwal, UP’s lead raider), his anticipation is excellent.
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“There is a lot of competition now,” he adds. “But if you start comparing ages, and think you are much older, then it can get deflating. What I do is, I compare my fitness to theirs. I think I am right up there.”
He has the numbers to back up the claim. Though Singh lost two years, and three seasons (2, 3, 4), to injury, he has finished in the top-5 in the list of most raid points in every season that he is participated. He is second in the all-time list of raid points, with 1140 in 114 matches. With 147 raid points in 13 matches in the current Season 9 of Pro Kabaddi, he’s the only player, not just over 30, but over 25 in the list of top-5 raiders.
“He's experienced, but he's still tries to keep on improving, he's very dedicated to it,” said Bengal coach K. Bhaskaran. “In the previous league matches compared to now, he's improved his footwork, his escaping, the hand-touch.”
Even though the Punjab player had made a bright start to his Pro Kabaddi career, scoring 130 raid points for Jaipur Pink Panthers and helping them to the championship in the inaugural season in 2014, he was soon sidelined by a back injury. “That took 14 months to recover,” he recalls. “But I just sat at home and ate during that time, so put on a lot of weight. I was over 100 kgs. I had to spend a few months getting back in shape.”
A farmer’s son, hailing from Dasuya village in Hoshiarpur, Punjab, Singh was used to drinking a few litres of raw milk during practice, snack on junk food and eat about 10 rotis at a time. Cutting down to the 85-kg weight limit for Pro Kabaddi has always been a task for the broad-chested player, who had started with circle kabaddi, a variation of the game more popular in Punjab and one that doesn’t have a weight cap.
“Earlier I used to eat a lot,” he says. “But then I got married (in 2017). Ladki padhi likhi aayi, to usne sab diet change kar diya (She was educated, she cleaned up the diet). She used to hide all the bad stuff, like cookies, from me but dig it out from somewhere for guests! At first, I was a bit shocked. But now I have come to realise that it’s for my own good. It’s not like I can’t have a sweet if I want to, but I know that instead of four I have to take eight rounds of the ground to burn that off!”
His wife Simran Kaur, who is studying tourism and hospitality, has replaced his daily ‘sweet chai’ with green tea and 10 rotis with two per meal and made sure he has a healthy pre-training snack. The new focus on fitness showed on the mat, as Singh made a strong comeback in 2017, scoring 190 points from 21 matches for the Bengal Warriors. In 2019, he was made the captain of the franchise, and despite not having any other star players on the team, led them to the title.
“No one expected us to win the title,” says Singh, who inked a tattoo, ‘Believe in yourself,’ after the upturn that season. Those three months also helped him re-think his attitude towards the sport.
“You can only play kabaddi well if you enjoy it and don’t take too much pressure,” he says. “I have learnt this from (Irani all-rounder Mohammad) Nabibaksh. The Irani players don’t care who they are playing against, they enjoy the competition. Even during the match they carry on conversing. Earlier, we Indian players used to take things too seriously, were too focused on what we need to do. During the timeouts, when the coach would tell us what to do, it wouldn’t register. Since Season 7, even during the matches we talk, have fun. I have learnt to stay calm. That has helped a lot.”
The way the league is progressing, with faster, younger raiders springing to action, has made it necessary for the older players to keep reinventing. Singh is one of the few who has succeeded.
Deepti Patwardhan is a freelance sportswriter based in Mumbai.