There are moments that remain etched forever in our memory. For me July 26, 2014 is up there as I think back to the first time that the lights shone and the Indian sport of kabaddi was resurrected from the mud to the glitz and glamor of the carpet at the National Sports Club of India in Mumbai.
Looking back, it was a night that really changed the landscape of Indian sport, and even with sporting and Bollywood royalty sitting beside the court, it was players from U Mumba and Jaipur Pink Panthers, Anup Kumar, Rishank Devadiga, Shabeer Bapu, Maninder and Jasvir Singh, among others, who were the real stars, forcing me to the edge of my seat for a captivating 40 minutes in the comment box. Kabaddi was here to stay!
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On a personal level, I owe a lot to a sport whose rules I struggled to remember before that fortuitous day of 2014. Coming from a family deeply involved in sport for three generations, I have often been ridiculed. in my own house for watching sports. like Sepak Takraw (a form of Malaysian kick volleyball) or a random replay of an Asian Games table tennis match. So when I heard whispers of an opening for an English commentator for a new kabaddi league, I was intrigued. Pro Kabaddi (PKL) gave me my debut as a sports commentator and I remember the sarcastic whispers and chuckles in the office, with taunts such as “What’s next, a Gilli danda league?”
I have to admit I had no idea how tall he would become. I just saw it as an opportunity to build something from scratch, kind of like my own second career as a broadcaster. Having been a professional cricketer I don’t think “kabaddi commentator” was on my list, but kabaddi accepted me and opened the doors for me as a broadcaster for Indian Premier League, World Cups cricket, badminton, hockey, Wimbledon, the Olympics and more. And it wasn’t just that. I even met my wife because of kabaddi and today I am the co-founder of a phygital kabaddi-based startup, Kabaddi Adda, which is working to transform sports from scratch while serving as a platform. form of content for 365 days. of the kabaddi commitment.
My debt to kabaddi is just a drop in the ocean compared to the thousands of lives that sport has truly transformed. Players have given their lives to the sport for decades and generations because of their pure love for the sport, or at best to gain a stable job in government. Today the power of the kabaddi is evident with rural India seeing it as a way to put food not only on one’s own table, but also to uplift entire villages or towns. The social impact of sport, even at this nascent stage, is difficult to describe in words.
Suhail Chandhok is one of India’s leading sports presenters and commentators, and the co-founder of Kabaddi Adda.
Kabaddi players often did not have the same access to nutrition, physical training or recognition as many other sports, despite dominating their sport with every gold medal at the Asian Games until 2018. The best player in 2014, Rakesh Kumar, won ??12.8 lakh for the first season of Pro Kabaddi. Seven seasons later, Pardeep Narwal is sitting on a cool ??1.65 crore for the same. That’s a 14-fold increase that has been life-changing in just seven years for a sport where, just a few years ago, most countries would have struggled to tell you how many players each team had. Here’s the beauty of it, though. Narwal still lives in his simple home in Rindhana, Haryana, where I had the privilege of joining him on the kitchen floor as his mother fed us hot roasts with fresh white butter and ghee made with milk from backyard cows. Several hundred players have moved from the muddy field to the mat, but through that transition they have remained grounded and grateful to the sport.
Over 400 million viewers have tapped into a season of PKL today, but it doesn’t end there. Thanks to Kabaddi Adda, we have started to create the building blocks of the path to the big league (think NCAA to NBA), and the appetite for the sport is staggering. The larger kabaddi ecosystem is still nascent and disorganized, perhaps again similar to that of basketball in the United States in the 1960s – a street sport that was part of the social fabric and required an organized push. and digitized with a bit of spice. During the pandemic, Kabaddi Adda’s K7 tournament hosted 110 matches, in which more than 430 players under 23 had a platform to show off their skills – 20 of them have already secured contracts in Pro Kabaddi. These are young people who wake up at 4:30 in the morning, train hard and often pay small sums to play the sport. Now they are winning contracts which run into the thousands 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 is from Saamipillai Nagar, a village of 400 people near Karur in Tamil Nadu, with four brothers who are all kabaddi players. His parents are day laborers who cut trees or sugar cane and work as “coolies” in their free time. Kumar’s return last season saw the whole village celebrating and has now inspired the emergence of more players who can see that it is possible to fulfill the dream of making a living from sports. This empowerment through sport and its social implications are perhaps more important than one can imagine in a country like India, especially when it comes to the female kabaddi and the potential that it holds. Some parts of rural India still perceive women as a burden on the household, and an attempt to play sports professionally would certainly be frowned upon. But with over 1,900 quality female players and crowded booths watching local tournaments like Charkhi Dadri’s Haryana State Trials, we hope the day is not far away when female kabaddi players become the backer. of their family.
I am constantly asked about the sport that India loves. There is no one right answer. Kabaddi is built on core values that resonate with Bharat: trust, honesty and community collaboration. Second, sport transcends generations. You have grandparents who grew up playing the sport and are delighted that it is back. Young people today find it “cool” … and so, by default, we have the generation of parents who are in fact the “”kebab mein haddis”(Add-ons) but make it a full-fledged 40 minute family entertainer. Add to that this is our very own contact sport, where the world’s best athletes compete against each other with spellbinding action guaranteed every 30 seconds in a controlled environment, and your eyes are glued all the time.
If Pro Kabaddi season 1 was all about educating the viewer, myself included, on the basics of the game and getting them excited, the coming season will be about unveiling new layers to India’s second most watched sport while also creating new domestic heroes who will raid our hearts with their athleticism, simplicity and respect for the sport. For decades the kabaddi may have been overlooked as it bore the label of a ‘rural’ sport and although the sport has always been Bharat ka khel, it is evident that India is proud to claim this title. again. A World Cup and seven years after that first meeting with Pro Kabaddi in 2014, it’s pretty 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
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