Earlier this week, legendary goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon signed a contract extension at Parma FC. That’s nothing new in the life of a professional football. Except that Buffon, a World Cup winner, is 44 and the new contract will ensure he continues to play till he’s 46 – at least. For all the towering Italian’s achievements throughout his career, it’s that particular statistic – his age – that adds to his aura.
But if you take Buffon away from football, and hypothetically put him in a kabaddi universe dominated by the Pro Kabaddi League, you will not be allowed to know his age.
It’s a curious development that the League decided to implement at the start of the recently concluded Season 8. On PKL’s official website, player profiles have two options and both categories display performances statistics. But none, not even the one titled ‘Bio,’ provide any insight into who the player might be, not even the age – the most basic statistic for any sportsperson.
“Age is just a number,” goes the often-told line most senior athletes recite when describing longevity. Of course, they’re not wrong. But in the life of an athlete, it is something that defines them, something that rules them, something that inspires them.
And it’s something that romanticises the single-minded approach towards excellence in their respective disciplines.
We’ve heard the endearing tales across sports.
Roger Federer aiming to make a comeback after 40. Rafael Nadal, 35, and Novak Djokovic, 34, holding the Grand Slam fort against the raging NextGen on the men’s tennis tour.
Boris Becker was just 17 when he won the Wimbledon title, and Nadia Comaneci scored a perfect 10 to win Olympic gold in the 1976 Games when she was aged just 14. A 16-year-old Cesc Fabregas became Arsenal’s youngest ever player, and Paolo Maldini spent 25 years at AC Milan before retiring, aged 41.
In cricket, 15-year-old Sachin Tendulkar made his First-Class debut and then retired at 40 – the same age at which MS Dhoni is still going strong. Of course, age was cricket’s most famous worst kept secret when it came to Shahid Afridi (was he born in 1980 or 1975?).
And if we talk about Kabaddi, those romantic tales were never far behind. There was the once “40-year-young” Dharmaraj Cheralathan – now 46 and still playing. Pardeep Narwal was once the teenaged “dubki-king” before the “record-breaker” tag dominated the 26-year-old.
And we know he’s 26 because in the earlier seasons of Pro Kabaddi, there was no shroud of secrecy to the point that a player’s age could not be revealed. In fact, earlier versions of the website went as far as describing the native place of a player and what his favourite moves on court were – not just the age. None of that is available now.
In the lead-up to the playoffs this season, this publication sought from league owners Mashal Sports the age of Aslam Inamdar, a talented debutant who helped the Puneri Paltan punch above their weight to make the Top 6. The request was denied.
The body has also declined to comment about why the age of a player is being kept under wraps.
The organisers are not legally bound to make clear the age of players in an Open league. But as a sports league so professionally run, it strikes as odd that the most basic stat that fans and pundits alike would like to know is the one that is kept under wraps. This is not an age-group tournament where revealing ages will cause any hassle.
But agelessness pertains just to players like Inamdar who made their debut or breakthrough this year.
Take Narwal’s teammate this season, Surender Gill, who had an outstanding outing for the UP Yoddha. There’s no way of knowing how old he is through the PKL – be it website or organisers (another website claims he was born in 1998). And there are so many more like Gill and Inamdar, who have made a breakthrough this year, but we won’t know how old they officially are.
When the PKL began in 2014, information about players was happily made available to fans and media in order to make the players more popular and known to the public. To make them household names. That’s why it’s well known that stars like Pawan Sehrawat and Pardeep Narwal are 26.
It seems a bit unfair on the upcoming players that so little is known of them.
It’s through the age that a coach would know at what stage of development a player is. It’s through the age of a player – kabaddi or otherwise – that a potential corporate sponsor would look to invest. And it’s often through age that fans and colleagues can be inspired.
During his winner’s speech at Wimbledon 2019, Djokovic said: “Roger said that he hopes that he gives some other people the chance to believe that they can do it at 37. I’m one of them.”
Sometimes, age is not just a number.