“Which is the one sport which you can truly say is completely India’s? Kabaddi.”
The host of the Pro Kabaddi trophy unveiling event in Chennai on Friday opened with a little monologue on how kabaddi is the sport that every Indian should identify with, extolling the uniqueness of a sport that pits one man against several others in an high-octane format.
While there is no doubt about the impact of Pro Kabaddi on this very Indian sport, the past couple of months has not been the most memorable for various reasons. First, the court case before the Asian Games. Then, the debacle of the Asian Games itself, where for the first time ever neither the Indian men’s or the women’s team won the gold medal in the tournament’s history. For the men, especially, the impact of defeat was felt deeper because it came in the semi-finals. Then, after the Asian Games, the controversy of the trials that never happened.
A lot was written about the debacle of the Asian Games and what exactly went wrong for Team India in Indonesia, and Pro Kabaddi was one of the factors discussed. And as the captains (and one vice-captain) of 12 franchises got together in Chennai on Friday for a meet and greet ahead of the sixth season of the hugely popular league, the shadow of the Asian Games did lurk.
Does the new season of Pro Kabaddi gain extra importance from the standpoint of where the sport is at in India? Former India captain Anup Kumar, who was not part of the squad in Indonesia, looks at it as a chance to put the past behind.
A fresh start
“I’m not thinking about my Indian team comeback, but yes I will make the effort to get back to my best this season,” Kumar told Scroll.in. “My focus will be to get people to think Anup is back to his best. As for the Asian Games result and its impact on how we’ll approach Pro Kabaddi, it’s a completely different tournament. We have been Asian champions for long and nobody asked how we kept winning. The one time we lost, everyone is asking why we lost.
He added, “The gap is closing in but we lost to Iran in a tough game. But yes, for those players who were part of the Asian Games squad, this season will be a chance to show again that they are still great players and this is a chance to prove that Asian Games was a one-off.”
For Ajay Thakur, the Indian captain who was in tears after the Iran result, Pro Kabaddi is a different ball-game, so to speak. “We all get together to play for the national team and then the leagues happen, which are two completely different things. We shouldn’t compare the two,” the Tamil Thalaivas captain said.
“But, yes, every player who begins a journey as a sportsperson, the first dream they have is to play for the country. So it was obviously disappointing what happened in the Asian Games. But this is part of sports. Winning and losing. I’ve been a sportsperson for more than 15 years now and I have never seen a player who has never tasted defeat in life,” he added.
Thakur admits the Pro Kabaddi season assumes extra importance for him personally, after the Asiad defeat. “Yes, of course. There is extra motivation as it should be after any defeat. The desire to well and the effort will only increase many-fold from here,” he said.
Former national coach E Bhaskaran, who is now the coach of Tamil Thalaivas, is confident that Thakur can put the Asian Games behind him.
“Mentally, he’s in a good space now,” the former U Mumba head coach said. “He was initially feeling the impact of being the first Indian captain to return without a gold medal. It’s understandable. What happened at the Asian Games cannot be just down down to the captain. There were issues with the team’s defence for various reasons. But now, as Tamil Thalaivas captain, he is in a different space, he understands his responsibilities here. I have known him as a player for many years now and it’s an honour that I get to be the coach to the team he is captaining.”
Bhaskaran also spoke about how Iran out-thought India in that semi-final.
“Hardly anyone expected Iran to beat India at this Asian Games strategically,” he said. “But the Iran players knew that the Indian raiders were masters of getting the bonus point, so they adopted an approach where they we never gave India the chance. Because their main defenders are not just good but world-class, their approach worked.”
But, as many have said, was that game a sign that Pro Kabaddi has closed the gaps between teams internationally?
“I wouldn’t say the gap is closing because of the league but there have been changes for sure,” Bhaskaran said. “Iran has been a good team for a while, there is no denying that, but I believe it’s the league that has made them good at the intricacies of the sport. Most of them have a wrestling background but when they train here, play here, they learn the nuances of kabaddi and defensively you could see they learned plenty of moves from the league.”
One thing, however, is certain. It won’t just be easy to brush aside the Asian Games defeat, but the path towards retaining the gold medal, perhaps, begins with the new season of Pro Kabaddi.
“Ideally, the road to winning gold at the next Asian Games begins now for all the Indian players,” Bhaskaran said. “It shouldn’t be a few months before the Games start in four years. With this now, they should start focussing on improving their game. Once the league ends, there should be camps. And then back to playing after a break, before the next season. It should be a constant process from here on out and if that happens, no doubt we can win back the gold medal next time around.”