In the lobby of a posh Pune hotel, Maninder Singh walked in, fatigued. He explained how he had felt faint a day earlier because he had not had a drop of water for two nights since the Bengal Warriors’ last Pro Kabaddi group stage match.
This was self-inflicted punishment, yet a necessary move to continue playing. After the Warriors played on the night of 8 November, Maninder went on a strict, waterless diet to ensure he dropped a few kilograms of weight to come under the required 85kg benchmark the league has set – the mid-season weigh-in was scheduled for November 10.
But the Bengal captain, who stands at an even 6-feet, wasn’t the only player sweating it out over making the cut. Just like Maninder, the taller players in the league were struggling to cut down from their ideal body weight to be eligible to compete.
Since the first season of Pro Kabaddi in 2014, the league has applied an 85kg weigh-in cut-off for all players – at least on the day of the weight check. In the longer three-month format, the checks are done three times in the season – the first is at the start, second is mid-way, and third is just before the playoffs.
On Monday, the players from the Jaipur Pink Panthers, Puneri Paltan, Bengaluru Bulls, UP Yoddhas, Tamil Thalaivas and Dabang Delhi will attend the last weigh-in of Season 9, as the six teams begin the playoffs stage.
“To do it everyday is very difficult, which is why we have the three checks to ensure that the players at least stay within range,” E Prasad Rao, the technical director of PKL, told Scroll.in.
“If we did it just once at the start of the three-month competition, then players might reach well over 100 kgs by the end of the season.”
The decision to introduce the weight cap was taken around two decades ago in order to promote the sport in other Asian countries.
“About 20-25 years ago, there was no weight category in kabaddi. It was open for all,” Rao explained. “When we went abroad, countries like Japan, Korea, Nepal, Thailand, they all had small (body) structures. They said that no body contact sport is open. Be it boxing, wrestling, taekwondo, judo – they all have weight categories.”
“I think we started at 70 kg. Then it went to 75, then 80, now it’s gone up to 85. Now we’re thinking of going up to 90.”
The weigh-in dates are announced to the teams well in time for the players to begin the process of shedding the extra kilos if needed.
“I get to eat just some salad for dinner, a little chicken for lunch,” said Patna Pirates’ defender Mohammadreza Shadloui Chiyaneh – who stands at 6-foot-4 – to this publication, around the time of the mid-season weigh-in.
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“My regular weight is 90kg because I’m tall. But when they checked my weight I had managed to come down to 84.8 kg.”
Similarly, Surender Gill, the 6-foot-2 raider for the Yoddhas, said he has just soup for his meals in the lead-up to the weigh-ins.
“At nights, I switch off the air conditioning, wear a thick sweatshirt and sleep under a heavy blanket to try and sweat it out,” Gill added.
Telugu Titans raider Siddharth Desai, meanwhile, who stands at 6-foot-4, goes on five kilometre runs in the morning and evening without a drop of water until the weight goes down.
“Paani amrut lagta hai (water tastes like nectar) during those days,” Desai told Scroll.in.
“The body doesn’t recover when you don’t eat or drink. It takes a few days to recover. So those matches immediately after the weigh-ins are a problem. There have been times when the body has no energy, you just can’t perform.”
The taller players generally need to keep a higher weight to maintain a healthy body mass index. The irony is that despite a player being in clinically prime physical condition, due to the weight-limit, the player may be deemed overweight.
It’s a conundrum that the likes of Maninder, Desai, Shadloui, Gill and many more tall players face every time there is a weigh-in.
“Scientifically, it is advisable for players to maintain their weight as per their height,” Puneri Paltan’s strength and conditioning coach Sangram Manjrekar told Scroll.in.
“There are chances of injury, but the support staff has to manage that. If it’s a main player of the team, like Siddharth Desai, then it’s a problem. Because he has to play and score points while he is cutting weight. If the muscle mass is good then there are less chances of getting injured.”
The prospect of injury only arises, however, when a player is required by his team to get on the mat and perform at a high level. With virtually little to no fuel going into the body in terms of food and water during the weigh-in build-up, teams – particularly the coaches – have to alter strategy and tactics.
“I can’t play the players who are trying to cut weight,” said Haryana Steelers coach Manpreet Singh. “If you haven’t eaten well, you cannot sleep well, so there’s no rest either. The protein levels drop, the water drops. If you make them play, they’re going to get injured.”
“Some players do come and tell you they’re not feeling up to it, but there are some who will not say anything. They’ll be determined to play, but then you have to judge as the coach.”
The 43-year-old, a former Asian Games gold medallist, knows first-hand the difficulty in dropping weight – he had to cut down over 40 kgs to be eligible to play in the third season.
“I had stopped playing in 2010, but I was selected for the Patna Pirates for the third season. It took me around six months to come down from 127 kgs to 85 kgs,” he said. Manpreet went on to skipper the team to their first-ever PKL title that season, and from there on has made a name for himself as an established coach.
But like most of the players, he too is not a fan of the weight rule.
“Either make it open, or do it proportional to the height of a player. Because of this rule, the sport has become less and less popular in the northern states where youngsters are generally well-built,” said Manpreet, who stands at 6-foot-2.
“Parents don’t want to send their kids to play kabaddi because there is a chance of injury – not because of the tackling, but because this rule is not allowing players room to recover. They’ll think that their child is a 6-footer who need to have more than 85kgs to be fit. This is detrimental. This is setting them up for injury.”
On Monday, when the six teams that have qualified for the playoffs send their players for weigh-ins, many of them may have been undergoing a few days of fasting just to get down to the required weight. On Tuesday, four of those teams will have to compete in the eliminators, making the position of coaches all the more tricky.
“You need your best players to be at their best (in the knockouts). But this rule doesn’t give them a chance to play to their potential,” Manpreet, who was coach of the Gujarat Giants team that reached the final in Season 5, had summed it up.