In 2010, Japan tied with Pakistan for the bronze medal for kabaddi at the Guangzhou Asian Games. Masayuki Shimokawa, a 25 year old who was part of that team, is now playing for Mumbai in the Star Sports Pro Kabaddi League that begins tonight.

The PKL is the latest attempt in India to convert kabaddi into a truly international sport. While it has been a part of the Asian Games since 1990 and 34 countries are part of the International Kabaddi Federation, few countries beyond the standard set in South Asia and Iran know of or even play it.

Shimokawa, for instance, has represented Japan at international tournaments since he was 20. But unlike other national players in Japan, he is not a well-known face. There might only be 1000 kabaddi players in Japan, a country of 127 million people.

“My family supports me a lot,” he said. “They tell me to ‘fight, fight, fight’. But kabaddi is not very popular in Japan. People will not even watch it if it comes on television.”

Charu Sharma, cricket commentator and managing director of the PKL, wants to change that.

“Our intention is not only to pick up the best players of the game,” said Sharma. “We could have gotten players only from Pakistan or Iran to represent new growth, but the breadth of the game is also important. That is why we have so many countries here.”

“Think of what would happen if someone like Shimokawa is a part of the winning team,” he said, adding, somewhat optimistically, “all of Japan would sit up and watch”.

The PKL, sponsored and televised by Star Sports, is modelled on cricket’s Indian Premier League. Eight city team owners bid for star kabaddi players in an auction held in May. Each team has 12 players, of whom three must be from countries other than India. The spending limit for each team is Rs 60 lakh.

Indians clearly remain the favoured players. Patna Pirates bought Rakesh Kumar, the highest paid player and captain of their team, for Rs 12.8 lakh. The highest paid foreigner was Puneri Paltan’s Mostafa Noudehi, from Iran, who fetched Rs 6.6 lakh.

But there are players from other countries. Kenya, Turkey, South Korea, England and Oman are among the more unexpected ones. As with Japan, kabaddi is a niche sport in many of these countries, played mostly at a university level.

Michael Dubery, at 20, is the youngest member of the Bengaluru Bulls. He has been playing kabaddi for only a year and only because he was introduced to it in university. A chemistry student at Imperial College in London, he became interested in kabaddi because he wanted something that would complement his wrestling.

“It’s just really great fun to have a game to play instead of just working out, you know,” he said.

He started at his university’s Hindi society and made his way into the England team in about three months, just around when the Pro Kabaddi League auctions were beginning. He is the only player from England.

Typically, few people know what the game is and he has had to explain it several times over to people over the last year.

The same holds in South Korea. Seong Ryeol Kim, now 29, is a part of the Bengal Warriors. He is a raider in the South Korean national team and has been to India twice before for training camps. Seong started playing kabaddi six years ago, as an extension of taekwondo and judo.

“My college professor told me that kabaddi is very exciting, so I started it,” he said. “But in India, there are many places and venues, which is even more fun.”

He might be a member of South Korea’s national team, but daily practice is difficult because there are so few others to play against. Typically, they practice on mats because the soil in Korea is too hard and leads to frequent injuries.

“The sand in India is much softer,” he said, “but even here, I prefer to play on mats.”

The PKL, controversially, provides anti-skid mats instead of soil, which they believe will help internationalise the game.

The kabaddi community at the highest levels in India is closely knit. Seong is even friends with some of the Telugu Titans, who he met at a practice session in Gandhinagar in 2012.

“India is the Mecca of kabaddi,” pointed out Sharma. “It is where all other countries come to practice.”

“The quality of my raiding has improved drastically with these guys,” said Dubery. “As a raider you have to have a game plan. You can’t just reach for the nearest person.”

Masayuki and Seong know very little English. Masayuki carries a little translator device that he uses to translate English words he doesn’t understand to Japanese and vice versa. But despite the language barrier, he is already friends with one of his teammates on Facebook. Seong, however, picked up small amounts of Hindi in his visits to Gandhinagar.

As we spoke, a teammate said excitedly, “Show her your tattoo, Kim.”

Seong sheepishly rolled up his shirt. Inscribed in large Devanagari letters just below his left shoulder was, “Korea kabaddi ka gaurav.” The pride of kabaddi in Korea.