At the Pro Kabaddi League auction in August, ahead of Season 9, the Tamil Thalaivas made their first big move in five years of existence. Here was a team that had never broken past the shackles of the bottom two in the group stage. This was a team ready to splurge over half their auction budget on a single player, spending a record Rs 2.26 crore (out of a total purse of Rs 4.4 crore) on an in-form Pawan Sehrawat, hoping to change their fortunes.

Only, the 27-year-old raider picked up a knee injury in the first 10 minutes of their first match of the season – a knock that required surgery and has rendered him unavailable for the rest of the campaign. And then in their first six matches, the team managed one win, one draw, and four losses. Again the danger of another disappointing season loomed large.

Until the team had another significant moment.

In came veteran coach Ashan Kumar to take charge of the team. And in the 10 matches since he joined the squad, the team has climbed up the ladder despite the slow start, and are in the mix a playoff spot for the first time in their history – they currently sit in sixth place with six matches left to play.

But this isn’t the first time Kumar has orchestrated a revival. In fact, the 61-year-old from Bhera village, in the Bhiwani district of Haryana has played a part in the success of both Iran and South Korea – the finalists of the 2018 Asian Games – on the international stage too. Incidentally, both teams beat India en route to the final in Jakarta.

“My only objective was to spread the sport to other countries and make them good at it,” Ashan Kumar told Scroll.in during an interaction in Pune. “If these other countries were not good in kabaddi, then perhaps it wouldn’t have been such a happy setting in the platform we have today.”

“When we talk about Fazel Atrachali (Iran’s captain and skipper of table toppers Puneri Paltan), or some players from South Korea, this was the objective in the first place – to make quality teams abroad to ensure there is competition.”

Success as a player

Kumar’s success though isn’t entirely abroad, and not just as coach. In fact, he was the captain of the Indian team that won the first gold medal of the sport when it was introduced as a medal event on the Asian Games roster in 1990. That was the first step in what would be a 28-year domination in the sport at the Asiad – the biggest prize in the sport.

Yet he recalled how his playing days had a vast difference to the cash-rich professional league of today.

“Kabaddi was the only event at the 1990 Games where India won gold,” said the former services player and coach. “That was a very proud moment for us, but looking at what it was back then and what it is now, raat-din ka farak hai [the difference is like night and day].”

“When we landed at Delhi airport, we got off the plane, picked up our bags, went to our respective travel arrangements – some players had family come to pick them up, some took the bus or train to head home. Chup chaap sab apne ghar chale gaye the [everybody left quietly without much fuss].”

That didn’t matter though to the band of players.

“We were just so excited that it was there, that we were getting a chance to go to the Asian Games. And we were determined to win.”

Ashan Kumar (second from left) with the Tamil Thalaivas team after their win over U Mumba (Courtesy: PKL Media)

Missionary of kabaddi

Eight years later, Kumar was the coach of the team that won gold in Bangkok 1998, and in a few years, he’d start to shape up Asian Games destiny of teams that are now India’s biggest rivals on the international stage.

In 2010, he was coach of the Iran team that competed and won silver at Guangzhou. But before he could form a team, he had to instil a semblance of discipline – especially in Atrachali.

In an earlier interview with The Indian Express, Kumar described how Atrachali was rather “lazy” and had to be “hit with a stick all the time.” Atrachali recently became PKL’s most successful defender. But Kumar asserted that the player still remembers the early lessons he got from the coach.

“When I meet Fazel today, he always says ‘I miss you sir.’ But I’m sure that every time I’m in front of him, the picture of me giving him those beatings comes to his mind. Uska ‘I miss you’ se mujhe yeh samaj aa jaata hai [I understand this from his ‘I miss you’],” Kumar added.

Similarly, Kumar had to set up a structure in South Korea as well, as he led the team to silver in Jakarta.

“When I went to South Korea, they didn’t have many players and they had only enough space for half a court,” ,” he said. “We’d practice on a judo mat. But they took a lot of interest as well. With that small pool of players, with that half court, we practiced, we worked hard and trained and went to the Asian Games with the target to win. We eventually lost the final to Iran, but the players showed me a lot of love and respect.”

Ashan Kumar during a training session (Courtesy: Tamil Thalaivas)

Joyful reunions

Kabaddi is no longer the sport Kumar used to play – moving from the rustic mud field he’d play on to the taped and neat mats. Yet within this new, glittering era of a sport that had remained a hinterland wonder until the PKL emerged, Kumar and his colleagues from the batch of 1990 still make the time to meet regularly for reunions.

“Whenever there is a program, be it a wedding, or even if the mood demands it, we get together and meet,” he said. “We organise a meeting at least once a year somewhere around the Punjab-Haryana side. Just to get back and chat. We recall our old stories and enjoy with song and dance.”

Kabaddi has come a long way since when Kumar played it. Back then, he said, the best player of a tournament would be gifted a bowl, some cutlery, maybe a suitcase.

“Katori se start hua tha, ab crores main hai [It started with cutlery, today we deal with crores],” he added.

Yet that captain from the batch of 1990 – where India’s dominance in the sport began – remains a game-changer even today.