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Pro Kabaddi League at 10: The improbable league that captured hearts

As Season 10 of the Pro Kabaddi League is about to begin, Lounge looks back at the league’s phenomenal popularity

Before Pro Kabaddi hit the television screens in 2014, Kailash Kandpal, CEO of Insurekot Sports, which owns one of the founding teams, Puneri Paltan, recalls the endeavour being regarded with a level of ridicule. The early 2010s was indeed the golden period for sporting leagues in India. The Indian Premier League (IPL), launched in 2008, had unpacked a host of possibilities for other sports and new leagues in hockey, tennis, wrestling—even futsal—had cropped up.

“Back in 2014, when I used to tell people we have a kabaddi team, people used to wonder,” Kandpal tells Lounge. Insurekot Sports was just dipping its feet into the world of sports, and the Pune kabaddi franchise was their first venture. “They would say anything happens in India; any league comes up. But the opening which it got, from the fans in the stands, back home people watching it on TV, that set the tone.”

On July 26, 2014, curtains were raised on the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL), in front of packed crowds in Mumbai. Rishank Devadiga, a Mumbai boy, playing for the city franchise U Mumba, remembers the wall of noise that met him as he entered the darkened NSCI Dome, lit up by sweeping spotlights.

Gujarat Giants head coach Ram Mehar Singh poses along with the team. (ANI)

“My school friends, locality friends, everyone had come to watch the match. I could hear those screams from my friends,” he says. “It was something new for us. On the first day, we were told there will be a lot of crowd; celebrities will be coming to watch the match. All the kabaddi players were pumped up. The game was already very popular in the rural areas. Wherever we used to go to play local matches or departmental matches, hundreds and thousands used to come and watch it. Kabaddi just needed that opportunity to be on the big screen, that’s what PKL provided.”

Pro Kabaddi yanked India’s rural sport into the 21st century, from mud to mat; from the sidelines into the spotlight. While other leagues have come and gone, Pro Kabaddi has become a permanent fixture on the Indian sporting calendar. Wowed by the athleticism and pace of the game, the audience has kept coming back for more. 2 December marks the start of the tenth season of a league that remains Indian sport’s most improbable success story.

Keeping pace: An ancient Indian sport, kabaddi didn’t really need an introduction to the audience in the country. But the League, founded by Mashal Sports and televised by Star Sports, brought the sport into living rooms in high-definition. But it was still the recognisable contact sport of the villages and small towns, re-imagined as a sport that was also quick and fast paced. A 30-second time limit was slapped on each raid and every third raid was made a do-or-die attempt, to add more jeopardy.

“Since the advent of Pro Kabaddi, the game has become very fast and strategic,” says Jeeva Kumar, a star PKL defender and now the defensive coach of U Mumba. “Because of the third raid (do-or-die), teams have to think tactically whom to send in first raid, second and third raid. The method has changed completely. Earlier strength and power were important, now it is about speed and technical and tactical awareness. Now you can’t be predictable, you have to keep upgrading, adding to skills every year.”

For Iranian superstar Fazel Atrachali, who has been playing the League since season 2, kabaddi has undergone a massive change. “Now kabaddi is totally different,” he says. “For example, 10 years ago dubki skill was not there. It was more about power. Before all players were like 80kg-90kg, but now they are all between 70 and 75kg, they have more speed. It has become more about mind, rather than just power.”

Upward curve: In the player auction for the inaugural edition of the PKL, teams were given a modest purse of 60 Lakh. Former India captain Rakesh Kumar was the most expensive buy at 12.8 lakhs. Eight teams competed in season 1, which lasted just over a month and 60 matches.

Since then, the League has gone from strength to strength. The number of teams was increased to 12 in season 5 in 2017—no other Indian league has as many teams, even IPL has 10. It also transitioned from a one-month jamboree to more serious three-month league the same year. The tenth edition of Pro Kabaddi will have 132 league-stage matches spread over three months.

At the player auction, the 1-crore mark was breached in style in season 6. Six players went under the hammer for a crore or more in 2018, as raider Monu Goyat was picked up by Haryana Steelers for 1.51 crores, making him the most expensive buy of the year.

Pro Kabaddi League at 10: The improbable league that captured hearts

The Pro Kabaddi League’s Greatest Hits.

The total team purse was increased ahead of this season’s auction to 5 crore. The most expensive player, for a second season running, was Pawan Sehrawat, who was signed on by Telugu Titans for a hefty sum of 2.605 crore. Irani defender Mohammadreza Shadloui Chiyaneh was snapped up by Pune for 2.31 crore, making him the most expensive overseas player in the PKL’s history.

While players would earlier depend on public sector jobs for their livelihood, they now get paid as top-tier professional athletes. “It is not just about Iran, but all over the world people want to play Pro Kabaddi,” adds Atrachali. “I have a friend in Poland, in Pakistan, in Sri Lanka, they all want to play in Pro Kabaddi. Because in PKL, you are on TV for 3-4 months, everybody likes that. Here you have money, everybody likes that. Here you are more famous, everybody likes that. PKL changed the life of a lot of players and now some players have a better car, a better house.”

Changing lifestyles: Pro Kabaddi has not just changed players lives, but also their lifestyle. “Before the League there was no real understanding of fitness,” says Kumar. “We used to run for fitness, jog a few rounds before a match as warm up. Now everything is planned, scheduled accordingly. What are we doing each day. What is to be done in the morning session, evening session. Earlier no one really paid any attention to diet. People would eat whatever they liked. Now they are told what to eat, what not to eat, how much to eat. Even players have understood that they need to follow this.”

The fact that the League now lasts for more than three months has put added emphasis on fitness. Add to it the travel fatigue, the weight limit (85 kg) and the higher impact on mat vs. mud, and players can’t afford to slack off. “The intensity is the same from the first match to the last,” says Devadiga. “It has now become a game of survival of the fittest.”

To ensure that players last the season, teams have also started taking a more scientific approach. “In Puneri Paltan, now the support staff is almost equal to the number of players we have,” says Kandpal. “We have coaches, team managers, physios, analysts, masseurs, photographer, videographer etc. The entire eco-system has grown.” Teams have also started investing heavily in youth programs to make sure they keep the conveyor belt of talent running.

And all this has happened because the enterprise, built on that one opportunity to strike it big, is showing no signs of slowing down. As Pro Kabaddi enters its tenth season, it remains in a league of its own.

Deepti Patwardhan is a Mumbai-based sportswriter.

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