For as far as he can remember, Vishal always found an incentive to play kho kho. There was a time when playing, and doing well, would earn him an extra glass of milk or an extra slice of bread to eat – luxuries he and his family could not afford.

On Sunday, at the Balewadi Sports Complex in Pune, he will compete for the glitziest prize his sport has to offer now. The 22-year-old will feature for the Odisha Juggernauts team that will compete against the Telugu Yoddhas in the final of the inaugural Ultimate Kho Kho season. And through the success of his team, he’s hoping for a chance to change the fortunes of his family.

“All my life I’ve known my family to be living in a rented home. I’ve planned to buy them a flat,” he told “The team is in the final now, so hopefully there will be some reward. But I’m hoping to earn enough one day.”

The financial condition at home, in New Delhi, is far better than what it had been 10 years ago, but Vishal doesn’t forget the days he’d see his mother struggle to pay for his father’s medical expenses and try to make ends meet.

Ultimate Kho Kho: A new league, for an age-old homegrown sport that is banking on nostalgia

His father had a decent job as a contractor at a company that exported clothes, until he was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 2009. Vishal’s mother then found work and his sister, older than him by a couple of years, also joined in to work to try and keep the family afloat.

“My father had not been well for many years, so my mother and sister started working at a factory that made mango candy to handle the medical expenses. They continued to work even after my father died in 2012,” he said.

“But through that time, they never put any pressure on me to work.”

Simple beginnings

Vishal hadn’t quite been that interested in his academics at the time, but watching his mother and sister slog, something struck. The one thing he knew he was good at was kho kho, a sport he first took up after watching his sister play at school.

“I needed to buckle down. I had to get mature and take things seriously,” he said.

“I played kho kho mainly for timepass. Ghar pe karlo ya park main karlo, timepass karna tha (At home or at the park, I just needed something to do to pass the time). Our Physical Training teacher told me to come the next day to play. I started winning points and liked it,” he said of his beginning in the sport.

Years later, he’d be a part of the Category A list of players that would be drafted by teams for Rs 5 lakhs each in UKK. Long before the time he’d spend over a month at a luxurious Pune hotel competing for the Juggernauts, he had a simpler incentive to play.

“At home, that time we couldn’t afford milk. But in school the teacher used to cook food for us. In school there were incentives through food and milk. And if we did well, we’d get an extra serving and another glass,” he said.

It’s because of that reward that he’d work hard to grow in his craft and lead his team to wins.

He remembers, fondly, a time when he was garlanded and paraded, while his teammate would chant: “Hamara neta aisa ho, Vishal bhai jaisa ho (Our leader should be like Vishal),” he recited, smiling at the memory.

His prowess at the game also provided him an opportunity to earn some money as a coach, taking up a job at a school in New Delhi, while working towards a Bachelor’s degree.

“In the morning I’d do coaching, evening I’d go to college, and then I’d do my own training,” he added.

“And then when the pandemic happened, all three of us lost our jobs.”

Delivery job to make ends meet

The threat of going under loomed large, until a friend’s father helped him get a job at a local dairy company. His first responsibility was to segregate the fruit that came in as raw materials. Later he would haul 14-kilogram crates into trucks that would distribute the finished products. It was strenuous work, and it didn’t help that his work was during at night.

“Sure, it helped me a bit with some kind of strength and weight training, but my body started to break down because of the heavy lifting,” he explained.

“It was a night job. Kaam karte karte kab din ho jata tha pata nahi chalta (While working, you’d lose track of the time and not realize it’s daytime). Then I’d go to train, and head back to work at night.”

It was hard work, but he managed to collect enough money to purchase a second-hand scooter that he now uses as a delivery agent for an e-commerce company. The daily routine changed once again, but there came a level of satisfaction.

He described how he’d often be dressed in track pants and sports shoes while delivering orders, and sometimes people would ask if he was a sportsperson.

Haan humne khele hai kabhi, bolte hai (Yes, I’ve also played kho kho at sometime, they would tell me),” he said of their reaction when he informed them he plays kho kho. It is after all a game that so many grew up playing in schools and now there’s a chance some of them may have now seen him in action on television.

There’s just one match left in the current season of UKK, and Vishal is that much further away from being a part of the team that will always be the first ever champion of a marquee league dedicated to a rustic indigenous sport.

But once the season ends, he will return to Delhi and fire-up the second-hand scooter and get back to his delivery job. And there’s a hope that this time when he’s out on the job, it won’t be through his clothes, but through his exploits on the court that he can be recognised.

Ultimate Kho Kho’s first season final takes place on Sunday with Telugu Yoddhas taking on Odisha Juggernauts in Pune.