Maninder Singh was enjoying a quiet dinner with his family in the restaurant of a Goa hotel when they were interrupted.

In kabaddi hotbeds across the country, Singh is one of the most recognizable athletes. He was the player that had starred in the final of the first ever Pro Kabaddi League season, helping the Jaipur Pink Panthers beat U Mumba. Later in Season 7 (in 2019) he led the Bengal Warriors to their first title.

But in Goa, a land famous for its love for football, he recalled his surprise at being recognised.

“The head chef had come to meet me,” said Singh, the 33-year-old Warriors captain, to Scroll.

“He said he was very happy that I was eating in his restaurant. People are now watching kabaddi everywhere – Punjab, Maharashtra, outside India also.”

The PKL, short for Pro Kabaddi League, was the first big brazen attempt to yank a rustic sport out of the Indian hinterland and set it on the path of modernity. The mud surface had already been replaced by a mat, but then came in the lights, the cameras, the air-conditioned cauldrons that echo the cheer of fans, Bollywood bigwigs and celebrities across industries alike, who were watching from the stands.

On Saturday, at the EKA Arena in Ahmedabad, PKL will mark the start of the 10th season in the journey of making an ancient Indian sport a professional avenue of today.

“We were all excited and wanted the league to do well but we didn’t know what aspect of the league would work,” explained Kailash Kandpal, Chief Executive Officer of Insurekot Sports, owners of the Puneri Paltan franchise.

“What we were clear about was that the opening should be with a bang and everyone was working towards it – the owners, broadcasters, the federation and the players. And yes, we did have that good opening.”

To the sound of each of the original eight teams’ anthems, the PKL began in July 2014.

Kabaddi is a sport rooted deep in nostalgia, but this was the first time it had been presented in such a glamourous setting. The action on the mat was just as gripping.

But while there had been dozens of technological innovations introduced to the sport to improve the viewer experience, the rules of the game also underwent changes.

New rules for the old sport

A delegation of officials from the broadcast team, the Indian federation and Charu Sharma – who has been credited with being the one to come up with the idea of forming the PKL – attended the national kabaddi championships in 2013 and 2014. The idea was to get a closer look at the sport in a tournament where the best players in the country were competing.

“They felt the game is very thrilling, but the whole match is not thrilling, there was a gap,” explained E Prasad Rao, the PKL technical director, to this publication.

“We had many experiments with the rules of the game to make it more interesting, more thrilling. So we added the do-or-die raid rule [a raider would be compulsorily required to win touch points after a team conceded two consecutive empty raids].”

Additionally, the 30-second raid rule was added, where a raider would have a maximum of 30 seconds to enter the opposition half before returning.

“Earlier, there was no rule like this so a raider would just go and keep chanting and take his time,” added Rao, who was the head coach of the Indian team that won gold at the 1990 Asian Games.

“We decided to put a limit on it. First we experimented with 45 seconds, then went down to 40. We even went as far down as 20, but eventually settled on 30 seconds.

“All these were introduced in Season 1. All these things gave the game life.”

Also read: Pro Kabaddi’s New Young Player program, a conveyor belt of rising stars

The changes in the rules were well received by the fans. Kandpal asserted that the league is the second most watched competition in the country, only behind cricket’s Indian Premier League, or IPL.

Coincidentally, the two franchise-based competitions are among the only three marquee leagues in the country that have gone into at least 10 seasons. But with 12 teams competing, PKL hast the joint-highest number of teams, along with the Indian Super League (which added a 12th team only this season).

As the game began to grow in terms of viewership and size – with more teams coming in (Haryana Steelers, Gujarat Giants, Tamil Thalaivas and UP Yoddhas were added to the roster with the original eight in 2017) – the length of the season increased to three months.

But with the increase in the duration came an increase in wealth for players.

Players becoming professional

Just as it is with the IPL, PKL too has player auctions ahead of every season. The purse for each team though has expanded over the years, bringing in more riches for the better players in the league. In Season 1, former India captain Rakesh Kumar was sold to the Patna Pirates for Rs 12.8 lakhs.

“That was big news, because in that much money an entire tournament could be held,” said Rao.

Ahead of Season 10 though, the most expensive player in the sport is Pawan Sehrawat, who captained India to the 2022 Asian Games gold medal, and was subsequently purchased by Telugu Titans for a record Rs 2.605 crore.

The money available for the players has changed the way the game is looked at.

“People are now thinking of kabaddi like a career,” Rao said. “Kabaddi players are from villages – people with middle or lower-middle class backgrounds. Unko life mil gaya. They can now earn a living.

“I get calls from parents asking for their children to be admitted to my academies. I tell them there’s no space, but they say they will take up accommodation nearby and come for training. Some try to get political pressure – talking to MPs, MLAs – just to join academies.

“And back in the day, we used to pray to parents that their kids are talented, please send them!”

Being good enough to fetch such handsome sums of money is one thing. Players also have the task of living up to those expectations. And there is a stark difference in the way they have embraced the modern scientific methods teams have made available to them.

Rao remembered how in his playing days and even later in the 1990s and early 2000s, the warm-up routine included “two rounds of the ground, a little stretching, and you’re done.”

Nowadays there is an entire process that has to be followed meticulously, while an army of support staff – physiotherapists, psychologists, trainers, dieticians, masseuses, strength and conditioning coaches, and more – revolve around the players.

“The players have become more demanding, but in a good way,” said Kandpal.

“The current crop of players, most of them are eating right. They don’t miss their physio sessions, they are particular about their massages, the ice baths and recovery sessions. They are embracing a professional sport and they want to be professional athletes. This is a big change.”

Kandpal recalled how the management had a tough time getting players from earlier seasons to handle their diets.

“It was an open buffet wherever we went,” Kandpal said. “The players would just take what they wanted, including all the fried stuff, the heavy parathas. Now that has changed.”

Singh, meanwhile, has been one of the few players who has remained a relevant figure from the inaugural season. He did miss three campaigns due to injury and returned to PKL in Season 5. He explained how he had to change his diet over the years to ensure he was an active player for his squad.

“I used to eat sweets and all the other things – whatever I wanted,” Singh said.

“But then the physios showed me what all I could have to get my fitness level to go up. Now the players follow that even when they are at home. Earlier, we would be eating parathas in the morning. Now it is a little fruit, milk, curd.”

Embracing stardom

The launch and success of the league pushed the athletes into overnight stardom. From unheard of players – in urban spaces – practicing an art that was relegated to being a village game, the likes of Anup Kumar, Rakesh Kumar, Ajay Thakur, Rahul Chaudhari and many more became poster boys and household names.

That early stardom took them by surprise.

Kandpal recalled waiting with Thakur – a former India captain and Padma Shri – at the conveyor belt in an airport when a group of young women approached the then Bengaluru Bulls player for autographs and photographs. Eventually, Thakur sheepishly obeyed.

“Cut to now where the players are, they are very open,” Kandpal said. “It’s natural to them that fans come up to them and they know how to react. It’s a vast change as to how the players have also evolved.”

The players know who they are. So do the fans, and so do the teams. In the earlier seasons, team managements would rely on the knowledge of the coach alone when it came to the auctions. Now, as Kandpal explained, the coach is still given autonomy over decisions, but the management – aided by analysis and data – do provide informed guidelines.

It is all a part of the package of a modern, professional sport. Over a thousand years old, going on 10.

Season 10 of PKL will be broadcast on the Star Sports Network and streamed live on Disney+Hotstar.

The teams

Team Best result Home city
Bengal Warriors Champion (Season 7) Kolkata
Benglauru Bulls Champion (Season 6) Bengaluru
Dabang Delhi Champion (Season 8) New Delhi
Gujarat Giants Runners-up (Seasons 5 and 6) Ahmedabad
Haryana Steelers Fifth place (Seasons 5 and 7) Sonipat
Jaipur Pink Panthers Champions (Seasons 1 and 9) Jaipur
Patna Pirates Champions (Season 3, 4 and 5) Patna
Puneri Paltan Runners-up (Season 9) Pune
Tamil Thalaivas Fourth place (Season 9) Chennai
Telugu Titans Third place (Season 2) Hyderabad/Vishakapatnam
U Mumba Champion (Season 2) Mumbai
UP Yoddhas Third place (Season 6) Noida
Courtesy: Pro Kabaddi League