Indian schoolchildren play kabaddi at their school in the village of Sarai Amanat Khan, about 30km west of Amritsar. The 12-nation Kabaddi World Cup kicked off this week. Photograph: Narinder Nanu/AFP/Getty Images
Although still largely unknown outside of South Asia, kabaddi is an ancient Indian sport in the midst of a resurgence on the subcontinent. Outdating more dominant (and imported) sporting traditions like cricket and field hockey, kabaddi – a mix of red rover, wrestling, and tag – was long considered a pursuit of the underclasses, a dusty, pre-modern relic devoid of the glitz, spectacle, and revenue of sophisticated, contemporary sport. With the launch of the Pro Kabaddi League in 2014, a venture backed by regional media behemoth Star Sports, the once provincial and quaint pastime has been souped up with stylishly marketed franchises, celebrity owners, revamped rules, and pumped full of cash to the tune of almost 200 million viewers in almost 100 countries.
The Kabaddi World Cup kicked off in Ahmedabad this weekend, at the TransStadia Arena, where the paint is still drying. It will be the first time in the sport’s (alleged) 4,000-year history that so many international eyes fall upon the simultaneously primal and novel sight of kabaddi’s robust frames lunging, evading, bashing into, and diving upon one another in search of points. Teams from 12 countries – India, Iran, Bangladesh, Thailand, the United States, Australia, Japan, South Korea, England, Poland, Kenya, and Argentina – are competing in the first edition of the Kabaddi World Cup in nine years, and the first since its revolution into a modern sporting enterprise.
“Two years back, when the PKL started, kabaddi was non-existent on TV,” says Star Sports commentator Sunil Taneja. “After four [bi-annual] seasons, It’s become a super-duper hit, and the ratings keep going up. This is the seventh or eighth sport I’ve worked on, but the response I’ve seen for kabaddi is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. The atmosphere in Ahmedabad right now is very, very good. People are really crazy, lining up to buy tickets. There are posters all over the city, and all of the newspapers are covering it with curious enthusiasm.”
A big part of what makes kabaddi appealing to new fans is the sheer simplicity of the game. Sides are broken down into raiders and blockers. To score a point, a raider must enter opposition territory, tag an opponent with any part of his body, and make it back into his side’s safety zone without being tackled to the ground. If he is caught, he is temporarily eliminated from proceedings and his team drops a point. It’s simple. It’s visceral. And it’s fun. Even if you don’t understand the finer details, you can enjoy the raw physicality of a team-based, contact sport with no ball and few rules.
Bangladesh take on England in their opening match on Sunday. Photograph: Sam Panthaky/AFP/Getty Images
Driven by the Pro Kabaddi League’s aggressive marketing and distribution, there are already stars emerging in this brand new landscape of world kabaddi. None more so than “Captain Cool” Anup Kumar, two-time Asian Games gold medalist, Pro Kabaddi League most valuable player with the title-winning U Mumba, and captain of the Indian national team. His face is plastered on billboards and buses all over Ahmedabad, and expectations are that India will steamroll their way to the trophy for the third time in as many attempts. “The only worthy opposition right now seems to be Iran, with its PKL talent, and perhaps Bangladesh,” says Malay Desai, journalist for Indian sports media outlet FirstPost embedded in Ahmedabad for the cup. “I won’t be surprised if India games turn out to be one-sided.”
In contrast, team members from less established nations like the US, Poland, and Kenya, are ragtag units of novices, part-timers, and transplants from other sports. The UK contingent at the World Cup is comprised of university students from the likes of London School of Economics and Imperial College London; young south Asians, Caribbeans, and Brits who practice in disused basements in between classes. The Australian team is made up of mostly retired Aussie Rules football players, one of whom is a well known broadcast commentator down under, and the Argentinean team only played their first competitive match two weeks ago.
The United States contingent was entirely unknown both home and abroad until they stepped off the plane in India, only a day before their opening fixture against tournament heavyweights Iran on Friday. Captained by the dreadlocked Troy Bacon, the team is comprised of bodybuilders, rappers, and aspiring media entrepreneurs, most of whom are graduates of Florida A&M in Tallahassee, one of the largest traditionally black universities in the United States. As videos of the squad chanting “USA! USA!” hit Instagram yesterday, it was immediately clear that kabaddi’s revolution from dusty provincial pastime to international media spectacle is well under way, and that the US team will not remain anonymous for long.
US team members Denmar “Pharoh D” McKie, and Ronnie “Eriic” Fields both have careers as rappers, while Kevin Caldwell writes the phrase “hustle” on the back of his shirts. Members’ personal social media accounts suggest they’re as surprised to be heading to India as the kabaddi world-at-large was to welcome them as they emerged from customs at the airport. But although the United States team is bursting with character, its members are lacking in experience. In its World Cup debut during the tournament’s opening salvo on Friday, the US was hammered 52-15 by heavyweights Iran. Led by their imposing captain and PKL star Meraj Sheykh, Iran were far too strong for a team whose members weren’t even playing the sport more than a few months ago.
Similar to the effect on the IPL’s Twenty20 format has had on Test cricket, implicit in the success of PKL-style rule kabaddi is the marginalization of the many other variants of the game played all over the world. In Pakistan, the UK, the US and Canada, circle-style kabaddi, played outside on larger fields, is supported by grassroots community held together by the desi diaspora. Instead of dipping into the talent pool of what they see as a competing format, the IKF has furnished its own, lesser experienced, rosters for the fledgling contingents at the World Cup with little explanation of the selection process or what the standards for inclusion may be. While the existing, kabaddi-playing communities in the US and beyond may be aggrieved at their exclusion, the makeup of the American contingent at the World Cup presents a new face for stateside kabaddi, one with a greater potential to tap into the mainstream American market than ever before.
That a national-level governing body of sport in India would exercise such dominance on an international level mirrors the Indian Premier League’s effect on international cricket. The success of the IPL, now a $4bn enterprise after only a decade in existence, has shown the potential of India to dominate and influence a world market. “The IPL model must be credited as inspiring the promoters of Pro Kabaddi League,” says Indian sports journalist Malay Desai. But cricket and kabaddi are very different beasts. The IPL leveraged the already cricket-mad Indian population to great effect, but with kabaddi, the PKL and the Kabaddi World Cup are seeking to create demand as they create the supply. With this in mind, nothing but an Indian victory will suffice at this World Cup.
The main event in the opening day’s fixtures on Friday was India v South Korea. As the Indian sports media entered the TransStadia Arena expecting an Indian triumph, South Korea – the world’s third ranked team, but comparative minnows – stunned the home nation by pipping them to a tight finish, 34-32. At the final whistle, a jubilant brigade of beefy South Koreans in blue and red-striped kits flooded the mat to celebrate, while a stunned stadium full of Indians were reminded of that, despite the best-laid plans of the IKF, the unpredictability of sport can topple even the grandest of ambitions, preparations, and expectations. And that’s why we love it.
The Kabaddi World Cup is indicative of the current state of Indian sporting enterprise. Brimming with ambition and potential, the Indian sport-and-media complex is looking to establish world-class domestic institutions after the overwhelming success of the IPL. The ITPL in tennis, the ISL in soccer, and the PKL in kabaddi were all founded in 2014 looking to replicate the IPL model. Kabaddi, however, presents a unique situation as the Indian-led IKF has taken on the mantle of spreading the sport – in its own image – to the rest of the globe. And although the Indian team’s victory and the longevity of the Kabaddi World Cup are as yet uncertain, one thing that is for sure is that the world is finally watching.
- The Kabaddi World Cup runs from 7 October until the final on 22 October