Kabaddi is an Indian sport through and through. Yet, the most defining moments in its history have happened on foreign soil.

In the monsoon of 1996, E Prasad Rao, now the technical director of International Kabaddi Federation, was in Sri Lanka as the new coach of their national team. A gold-medal winning coach with India in the first-ever Asian Games in 1990, the Lankans had pinned hopes on Rao to turn their kabaddi fortunes around.

But the weather gods had other ideas. Torrential rains didn’t allow the players to train and make the most of their priced coaching acquisition.

“They [Sri Lankan federation] were getting desperate asked me if I could train the players indoors on a taekwondo mat. I had never seen the mat before, but I agreed,” Rao told Scroll.in.

“The idea of playing kabaddi on the mat had crossed my mind before, but attempts to do so on a wrestling or a gymnastic mat hadn’t yielded any success. They were too soft and it hampered the mobility of the players,” he added.

After a month-long training session with the Sri Lankan players on the mat, the surface felt just right for kabaddi. Rao’s idea of playing the sport on a surface other than mud gained strength.

“Foreigners don’t go to toilets without chappals, so how do I convince them to play a sport in mud without any footwear? I always wanted a way to resolve this issue. When I trained on that taekwondo mat for a month, I got the confidence that kabaddi can be played on a synthetic mat,” said Rao.

The making of the kabaddi mat

In 2002, in the build-up the Busan Asian Games, kabaddi faced a threat of being excluded from the event as there was no space to host the event. Rao who had been working on making a the desired mat for kabaddi since that month spent in Sri Lanka, felt it was time to take his experimentation to an official level.

After acquiring two basketball courts in a local university to host kabaddi, Rao got in touch with South Korean company, Daewoo, to work on the mat.

“We took the taekwondo mat and increased its tensile strength from 40 to 60. In kabaddi, we just don’t need to use strength, but also run and move. So, the extra hardness was necessary.” he explained.

Playing with bare feet on the mat left the players with skinned feet. It was evident fairly early that a player needed shoes to play on the new surface. Initially, wrestling shoes were used, but they didn’t sit too well with the players.

Understanding the players’ reservations about the new surface, Rao didn’t make it mandatory to play with shoes during the 2002 Asian Games. So, some played with the shoes available at the time, while some played bare feet.

“The games went very well. But the astonishing result for us was that the players who wore shoes performed better than those who played without them. So, it convinced the players that kabaddi can be played on the mat and it can be played even better with the shoes on. It was a small victory for me in my efforts to make an acceptable playing surface for kabaddi,” recalled Rao.

Almost seventeen years down the line, the mat is now kabaddi’s preferred surface. All international and national events are held on the mat and even state and district level competitions in India are following suit.

The move received widespread criticism from within the kabaddi circles as many feared kabaddi would go down the same route as hockey. However, the players who lived through the transition felt the mat helped strengthened the game in India as much as it helped gain acceptance abroad.

“Earlier, only rural or lower-income groups played this game, but now kabaddi is a lot more aspirational for the urban audiences and the higher income groups. The game has crossed certain boundaries it couldn’t, playing on mud surface,” suggested BC Ramesh, the member of India’s 2002 Asian Games winning team, who is now the coach of Pro Kabaddi side Bengal Warriors.

His thoughts were seconded by Anup Kumar, Pro Kabaddi’s most popular player.

“The mat has made the sport more glamourous. You can’t sell anything without that hint of glamour attached to it. We still love playing on both surfaces, but I’m sure that kabaddi would have never become so popular if we had the Pro Kabaddi in mud,” said Anup who ventured into coaching with Puneri Paltan this year after six seasons in Pro Kabaddi.

Kabaddi’s shift from mud to mat was truly rubber-stamped with the launch of the Pro Kabaddi League, a moment that Rao feels was the graduation ceremony of the sport. However, this leap of faith of moving to mud from mat also had deeper effects on the technique of the sport.

Changing techniques

The difference in characteristics of the two surfaces meant the players had to make several changes to the way they played the game to adapt to the new surface.

“The game on mud and that on the mat is very different. On mud, footwork mattered a lot for raiders. The game was more skill-based. Now only skill doesn’t work. You need to move a lot on the court and unsettle the defenders. On the mat, the speed of the game has increased a lot, so it is now about your skill, speed and strength,” BC Ramesh explained.

The mud offers less friction and allows the foot to skid. On the mat, the friction is more and the foot has a firmer grip on the surface. It comes with both advantages and disadvantages.

“For the raider, the mat offers a more suitable grip to execute a wide range of skills. Be it the jump, or the dupki or the other feints, it is easier as he has a firm footing on the mat. On the mud, it is harder as the raider often slips while attempting those skills,” said Rakesh Kumar, India’s most decorated kabaddi player.

Raiders have an upper hand in the kabaddi played on mat. PKL

“It works the other way round for defenders. The loose footing on the mud helps absorb the shock the body goes through when it clashes with the raider. On the mat, it is not the case. The pressure is all on your legs as it doesn’t skid. That’s why you don’t see many single-man blocks or chain tackles succeeding on the mat,” he added.

The shift to mat has made kabaddi more raider-friendly, but the scenario isn’t all gloomy for defenders.

“On the mud, we saw very few dive tackles. But on the mat, the dive catches have increased. Even though the ankle holds are not as frequent on the mat due to the increased speed of the game, the dive is a lethal weapon on the new surface,” stated Rambir Singh Khokhar, who became the fourth kabaddi coach to win the Dronacharya award earlier this year.

Dealing with mat injuries

Apart from the technical changes in kabaddi shifting from mud to mat, the players became more vulnerable to injuries on the new surface. They may have suffered fewer bruises on the mat, but the chances of serious joint and muscle injuries increased on the mat due to the more friction it offered and the increased pace of the game on the surface.

“The biggest change a kabaddi player has had to make while going from mud to mat is on the fitness front. If you don’t have the right level of fitness, you are certain to have injuries on the mat,” Rakesh Kumar stated.

With Pro Kabaddi increasing its duration to three months, teams have hired fitness trainers and experts to help players avoid injuries. The training regimes are centered around improving the stability and mobility of joints and practicing specific types of movements for raiders and defenders. Working on pulling movements is important for defenders as they have to pull the raider back, while raiders work on pushing movements to help them shove their way to the midline. These exercises help them gain strength in the vital muscles and reduce the chances of an injury.

Pro Kabaddi players undergoing endurance training. Fortunegiants/Twitter

Kabaddi is a unique sport in a way where a player has to be good in multiple physical elements.

“Training a kabaddi player is harder than any other sport. In every other sport, the primary key is endurance and then strength and speed are secondary keys. In kabaddi, a player has to focus equally on endurance and strength thus adding to their time in the gym,” Vishal Khajotia, the strength and conditioning coach at Bengaluru Bulls said.

Khajotia added: “Earlier when the game was much slower on the mud, you could get away if you weren’t completely fit, but the game on the mat means you have to work on your body for the entire year.”

The raiders are reaping rewards of the help they get from the surface in terms of grip and quicker movements to gain an upper hand over defenders who have been restricted to an extent on the mat. It has thus forced the defenders to come up with ways to restore the balance, thus helping the sport evolve tactically.

“Defenders are now using different ploys to get the raider out. The raiders, these days, often wait for a tackle rather than actually trying for a touch as they can go back much faster on the mat. So, we use the second man (players that form the chain with the corner defender, that are usually raiders) to make tackles,” said Dabang Delhi’s cover defender Vishal Mane, a former champion with U Mumba and Patna Pirates.

However, kabaddi’s evolution has come at a cost with players suffering serious injuries that can derail a blossoming career. Kabaddi may have made the mat its new home, but the new playing surface remains a work in progress.

“The mat now is much better than what we had initially, but it still needs improvement. We need to have a mat where we can reduce the number of injuries. Hopefully, we have one soon,” coach BC Ramesh expressed.

For kabaddi, once a sport confined to mud courts of rural India, the new landscape characterised by wholesale and rapid changes, offers more than just hope.