Dilip Khandavi waited, hand on the kho kho pole, almost taunting his opponent. He’d hold that position, slightly crouched, and wait for the attacker to make his move before darting well out of reach.

He’d slalom between attackers, alter pace and direction seamlessly, turn on a dime, slap his thigh to showboat a bit, and stay well out of reach for two minutes and four seconds. And he’d remain unbeaten in the Ultimate Kho Kho final on Sunday, at the Balewadi Sports Complex in Pune.

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The 20-year-old is the pocket dynamo of the Odisha Juggernauts, and he’d use his 5-foot (153 cm) frame, coupled with his measured movement on the mat, to keep the Telugu Yoddhas from away from what could have been a crucial touch point. But he didn’t give it away, and it made a big difference for the Juggernauts who walked away with the title after registering a one-point (46-45) win to become the first champions of the latest franchise-based sports league in India.

For his efforts in the final, Khandavi was given the ‘Defender of the Match’ award.

In a team of tall, athletic players, Khandavi’s stature comes in handy when he is on the mat. The pace is there, but his small frame presents a great deal of trouble for attackers looking to tag him.

“If you’re that small, an attacker has to work harder and reach further to try and get a touch. And that just gives you more time to escape,” explained team captain Milind Chavarekar to Scroll.in after the match. “It also keeps him a bit unnoticed when there are multiple defenders on the mat.”

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Going undetected during a kho kho match is an enviable accomplishment. But, for the entire year he had taken a hiatus from the sport, he wasn’t forgotten. So much so that, he recalled, he had no clue that his name had been submitted for the player draft.

But he was picked by the Juggernauts as a Category A player, meaning a cool Rs 5 lakh paycheck that, he asserted, will do wonders for his family.

“(Getting drafted in Category A) felt a little good because (my family and I) felt like now some money will come our way,” he told Scroll.in a day before the final.

“I could help my family because they had been supporting me all throughout. They told me to go for the league. ‘All of us are here, at least you go and make a name for yourself’,” he recalled their words to him.

“All of them had to leave their education (because of financial troubles).”

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Hailing from Krishna Nagar, a village in the Surgana taluka of Nashik, Khandavi, his four brothers and parents worked on the family farm, toiling on the land to grow rice and pulses. On the side, he learnt how to play kho kho along with his older brothers seven years ago. His exploits caught the attention of Mandar Deshmukh, a coach who took him to a sports hostel in Nashik where he stayed for six years, honing his skills.

It was during that spell that he represented the state team in the senior nationals six times, after bagging the ‘best player’ award in the junior nationals.

But when the pandemic struck, Khandavi – the youngest in his family – returned home to his village and started to follow in the farming footsteps of his family. It’s there he remained despite restrictions being lifted, staying away from the world of competitive sport for the past year.

“I was on a break for the past one year and worked on the farm. There is no kho kho ground in the village, nor does anyone play the game there, so there was no practice. I used to play cricket instead,” he said.

“Then I got news that I had been selected for UKK. When I came to the camp, that was the first time I got back to playing.”

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Lack of touch with the game didn’t necessarily mean he was unfit. The hard work on the farm – and those occasional cricketing jaunts – kept him fit enough to hit the Ultimate Kho Kho mat running.

But it was a new world for Khandavi.

He remembered a time when, during those years at the hostel in Nashik, every meal – apart from occasions like Independence Day – was a simple plate of daal-bhaat (rice and daal). Not even a pickle to break the monotony.

Now – for the past few weeks in a posh Pune hotel – he’d been exposed to different cuisines.

“It’s a very different world here. I look at other people and what they’re eating, so I try everything as well,” he added.

On Sunday he earned a cash award for Rs 50,000 for being the defender of the match. It all goes into the savings he’s hoping to grow enough to help his family.

Soon he’ll return to the mud house with a tin-sheet roof that’s been his home. But now that he’s had a taste of what’s in store in this new dimension to the game, no longer does he have a reason to wander away from the sport.