It was April 9, 2019. Mohammad Nabibakhsh’s phone was constantly buzzing. His Iran national kabaddi teammate Fazel Atrachali was calling him frequently. Miles away in India, the auctions for the seventh season of Pro Kabaddi were underway and Nabibakhsh had found his way into the auction list of foreign players.
“Telugu Titans for Rs 61 lakhs,” Fazel told Nabibakhsh, informing about his selection into the Pro Kabaddi side. A few minutes later, Fazel called again. “No Telugu bro, Patna Pirates for Rs 71 lakhs,” he added. Before the Iranian could digest the information, Fazel called again. “Not Patna, you have been sold to Bengal Warriors for Rs 81 lakhs,” the Iranian skipper informed.
Moments later, Abozar Mohajermighani, another Iran kabaddi team player, confirmed the news to Nabibakhsh. “Rs 81 lakhs, are you guys joking?” was how he reacted.
Reservations over purchase
After never making it to the Pro Kabaddi auctions despite playing for Iran national team since 2016, Nabibakhsh caused a splash when he eventually did. Most Indians had seen glimpses of the Iranian during the Jakarta Asian Games and also at the Kabaddi Masters in Dubai in 2018, but his performances had not stayed with them as Iran’s defending got all the plaudits.
So, when Bengal Warriors spent Rs 81 lakh on Mohammad Nabibakhsh, many doubted their wisdom. Iranian raiders apart from Meraj Sheykh had failed to make a mark in Pro Kabaddi and when Bengal spent that amount on one instead of an Iranian defender, few felt it was a worthwhile investment.
In Iran, a country known for producing strong and powerful defenders in kabaddi, Nabibakhsh was always an anomaly. He was a raider through and through and never played any other position for the most part of his career.
“In Iran, players are obsessed with the dive. It’s a defender’s move and hence most players want to be defenders,” Nabibakhsh told Scroll.in.
“I was always different. I liked raiding. I was quick and hence my coach put me as a raider. Since I have always been playing as a raider,” he added.
From wrestling to kabaddi
Nabibakhsh, like most Iranian kabaddi players, was an aspiring wrestler. But on the advice of his wrestling coach Ebad Daliri, who later turned into a kabaddi player himself, Nabibakhsh took to kabaddi at the age of 17.
For the youngster, the decision was quite simple. “I liked kabaddi. It is a team sport, while wrestling is an individual one. If you lose in wrestling the entire blame is on you. But in kabaddi, you don’t lose alone,” the Iranian reasoned.
Based in the north-Iranian province of Mazandarani, Nabibakhsh fell in love with the sport as he practised kabaddi with his coach Daliri who then played for Iran national kabaddi team.
However, he had to wait until 2016 to represent Iran. He was part of a five-game series against Pakistan where his performances earned him a place in the national team for the 2016 Kabaddi World Cup.
Iran finished runners-up behind India but Nabibakhsh was barely used. He remained an unknown quantity in the kabaddi world and failed to make it to the auctions of the Pro Kabaddi League.
2018 was the turning point for the Iranian. He was selected in a young team for the 2018 Dubai Kabaddi Masters where he was the team’s best raider. He continued that performance in the Asian Games where Iran won their first-ever gold medal in the sport, beating India on the way.
“Training with national camp, helped me improve, especially my fitness. Our coach made us run, run and run. From morning to evening, all we did was running. But it helped me get fit,” he revealed.
Nabibakhsh also learned defensive skills during his time with the national team, thus adding another dimension to his game.
A key cog in Bengal winning unit
So, when Nabibakhsh arrived in Pro Kabaddi, he was a well-rounded player. In his very first game in Pro Kabaddi, he showed his preparedness for the level by scoring a super 10 against UP Yoddha.
Although he had to wait almost three months for his next super 10, he couldn’t have picked a better time. On Saturday, against a Dabang Delhi side leading the Pro Kabaddi final by 11-3, Nabibakhsh who was handed the captaincy and responsibility of leading the raiding unit, took matters in his own hands and slowly turned on the heat on the Delhi defence which cracked under pressure.
A few minutes before half-time, the Iranian displayed his strength as he sneaked a hand past the midline to clean up the two-man Delhi defence that seemed in control of the tackle and give Bengal an all-out and most importantly, an opening to take control of the game. It was a moment that coach BC Ramesh later highlighted as the turning point in the 39-34 win that gave Bengal their first Pro Kabaddi title.
“He (Nabibakhsh) is a very unique player. His raiding style is very unorthodox. Nobody knows when he will turn or when he will go for a touch. There are no patterns. That’s why it is very difficult to catch him,” Bengal Warriors coach Ramesh said after the game.
“Apart from being different, he is also one of the smartest players around. He took over captaincy in his debut season in the semi-final and finals when Maninder got injured and did a great job. He is also very versatile and plays in different positions. There is no one quite like him. He’s special,” he added.
Nabibakhsh has played as both the lead and supporting raider in the side this season. He has also been deployed as a cover defender and sometimes also in the corner position to fill in for certain players, or to use his qualities as a defender that give him an advantage over certain types of raiders.
Despite not being a natural defender, Nabibakhsh’s defensive numbers are impressive.
Playing in the cover position, Nabibakhsh had a better tackle strike rate (46) than both the players that Bengal have used in the cover positions this season. He also has 37 defensive assists where he has contributed in successful execution of a tackle initiated by his teammate
Also, as a raider, his unique raiding technique earned him great success with fewer defenders on the mat. It is a task that is a lot tougher than it seems but Nabibakhsh provided Bengal with a raider who cleans up the tail and secures the all-outs. Bengal ended the season with most all-outs and Nabibakhsh was certainly an important factor behind that.
A champion in his first season in Pro Kabaddi, the Iranian’s long wait to get into the competition was certainly worth it.
Back home in Iran, Nabibakhsh doesn’t have a job and is acquiring a degree in physical education. His father who has always been a reluctant observer of his kabaddi exploits would be a happy man, one wonders. But it’s not quite the case.
“My father keeps calling me every now and then. He wants me to come back as he misses me a lot. He told me that I should let go of the money and come back,” Nabibakhsh revealed.
To his father, the son’s company matters more than the financial reward.
But maybe when Nabibakhsh returns to Iran, with the winners’ medal and most importantly, a smile on his face, he may change his mind about his son playing kabaddi.