Catch them if you can!

A game close to our roots and hearts has found a sound platform to shine with start of the pro league

Catch them if you can!

Prime time television in India, like most Western countries, is a highly competitive market. Scheming mother-in-laws, second-guessing daughter-in-laws, cringeworthy reality shows and Arnab Goswami jostle for space from 7.00 pm to 10.30 pm on a daily basis.


Over the last half-a-dozen years, a new player entered India and radically altered the dynamic — franchise based sports.

Cricket's Indian Premier League (IPL) was the catalyst for change and the latest sport to adopt a similar franchise-based avatar, the Pro-Kabaddi League, has been receiving rave reviews from pundits and been getting column inches from international press.

Most of it is deserved as apart from managing to grab eyeballs in the prime time slot at 8.00 pm, the turnstiles have not stopped moving ever since the league began in Mumbai on July 26. One man credited for this change has been Charu Sharma, whose phone hasn't stopped ringing ever since the start of the league.

Ask him how it all came about and you take a moment to realise that the league was eight years in the making. "I was privileged to be invited as one of the international commentators for kabaddi during the 2006 Asiad in Doha," he says. "What I saw there took me by surprise. It was the first game to be sold out, and the whole ambience spoke of a modern, international look to a very traditional sport.

"I came back and told Anand Mahindra (co-promoter of the League and Sharma's brother-in-law) that we should be doing something. But nothing happened for the next four years.

"I again went to Guangzhou in 2010 and again saw the popularity of kabaddi. I was determined to do something about it and told Mahindra 'that we are not respecting the sport enough and we need to take it forward.'"

After the brainstorming in 2010, they formed a sports company in 2011, pitched the idea to various TV channels but they weren't so keen on saying 'kabaddi, kabaddi, kabaddi.' They, then, approached Star India in the beginning of 2013. It took both the parties some time to work out the contracts but they eventually ironed out the differences to give the sport not so much a cosmetic touch-up but a radical surgery.

Hugely popular all over the country, especially in rural areas, the sport normally gained spotlight in the media as well in the eyes of the urban elite only during the time of the Asian Games. In fact, kabaddi was India’s saving grace on its Asiad debut, bringing the country’s only gold medal at Beijing in 1990.
As the new league marches towards the final phase, the new look has found backers everywhere.

Former India player BC Ramesh, who skippered the national team to Asian Games glory, is one. "Various Kabaddi clubs were dying, the facilities were not the greatest and so on," he begins on a sober note. "But PKL has acted like a push to promote the sport in a super way.

"Earlier, kids used to ask me what was the use of playing kabaddi. These days, at least 10 kids come and ask me on a daily basis about coaching camps and what not. They have all been sucked into the league and I'm very happy with the publicity that the sport is getting."

Ramesh, who has been appointed co-ordinator of the Bangalore Leg of PKL by the Amateur Kabaddi Federation of India, though, did regret the fact that the sport wasn't so glamorised during his playing days. "100 per cent (that I regret there wasn't a platform for us).

"When we (Karnataka) ruled the roost in India for a 7-8 year period and when we routinely used to win lots of medals, it would have been nice if there had been this much interest in the sport. We would have loved to get an opportunity to enthrall the spectators,” he sighs ruefully. But Ramesh does concede that he is thrilled the younger generation might profit from the attention the sport is getting.

Another big advantage that usually accompanies the razzmatazz is the improved standard of living of the players, something that Ramesh is quick to point out. “Earlier, players may not be earning more than Rs 7,000 from tournaments and they were forced to find secondary jobs to sustain themselves.
“But this outlet has given most players the opportunity to practice kabaddi with a view of making a living out of it.”

Underlining that fact is the case of Rakesh Kumar, a gold medallist at the 2010 Asiad, who was sold for Rs 12.80 lakh at the PKL auction.

Kabaddi could have so easily gone the way of hockey, another traditional sport which has been crying out for attention. It is a fact not lost on Ramesh. "When we used to talk about kabaddi, I was sometimes worried that it might go the way of hockey. We used to be so good in that once upon a time and these days, we are nowhere."

The crowd support, Charu Sharma maintains, is one of the things that he envisaged. “I knew about the power of kabaddi. It is ultimately in our DNA as it has an emotional connect with the people of our country.”

The former CEO of Royal Challengers Bangalore, though, isn’t quite prepared to rest on his laurels. “While there are plans to expand the league, we should first plan without being greedy. We need to ensure that women’s kabaddi doesn’t get left behind.”

Given that the new form of one of the most traditional sports anywhere in the world has been a massive hit – it has even found a niche audience in pubs, people in social media talk about it – expect the craze to catch on.

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