Pradeep Kumar is the left corner raider for Mumbai’s Pro-Kabaddi team, U Mumba. He is a stellar kabaddi player, as we all saw in the July 2015 season. But playing kabaddi is not the only talent this 29-year-old possesses. Kumar can single-handedly give an ace radio jockey a run for his money; not only does he know nearly all the Hindi, Punjabi and Hariyanvi songs from the ’60s to 2015, he can also name the film, the director and the actors in the films. Additionally, he can perform these songs, complete with histrionics.
We discovered Kumar’s hidden talent during an impromptu antakshari session on our way from Andheri to CBD Belapur, Navi Mumbai. Just a few days before they take off for Visakhapatnam, for their first match against Telugu Titans, we catch up with the team. It’s a day on which they are exempted from training and are out on a city excursion. The result: left to their own devices, the boys eat, sleep and banter endlessly.
Just back from a training camp in Kerala, U Mumba is set to try and defend their winning Pro-Kabaddi title this season. In a season where other teams have shuffled players around, U Mumba has retained all its original players, with a new addition — Rakesh Kumar. A raider, originally from Haryana, he is the vice-captain of the Indian national kabaddi team. He led the Patna Pirates till last season, a fact you won’t believe when you see him with U Mumba.
The camaraderie between Rakesh and the team is quite a sight. Fondly called Papa, Rakesh harbours an unusual obsession with Ajay Devgan’s signature dance step from Sigham’s title track. So much so that it has spread across the team and they finish their sentences with the Singham pose. “These guys are like brothers to me and I am glad I get to fight for them this season,” he says with sudden sincerity. However, just as he finishes this sentence, Pradeep locks Rakesh’s head in his elbow and says: “Of course you are, Papa,” and the two are off, play-punching each other in the middle of the road, outside the Shaheed Bhagat Singh Gurudwara in Andheri (W). Deeply religious, the players visited the gurudwara to offer their prayers to the almighty ahead of their first game.
The fact that these players continue their banter and sing with us is indicative of their growing comfort with media interactions. During our interview in August last year, they seemed shy. Now, three years in the business, these players finally seem to have left the awkwardness behind.
Raider Rishank Devadiga, for instance, was far more confident during our recent conversation. “We have all been together for three years now. I believe our team is the strongest in the league. This time, we have to perform even better to retain the trophy. I am not worried about our performance, I am sure it will be great,” he says.
The comfort level extends to their fans as well. During a visit to a sports event in Belapur, for which they had been invited to encourage a budding sports culture, young boys were grabbing the players with requests for selfies. They obliged by flashing their practised smiles each time. “You get used to it. If it makes them happy, it makes me happy,” says Devadiga.
The one fact that has remained unchanged for the last three seasons is the exemplary humility amongst the players. Despite winning the last season, they have all trained rigorously to better themselves, says coach Ravi Shetty.
We were witness to their down-to-earth nature when their plans to tour the city fell through as the bus broke down on a highway near Vashi. Being an AC bus, the windows could not be cracked open for ventilation.
Being national level athletes, and most importantly, recent champions, a tantrum would not have been unwarranted. Instead, the players, who were most likely satiated and lazy after their lunch at the gurudwara langar, quietly propped up their feet on the bus seats and took afternoon naps; some listened to music, while a few giggled and joked.
“I am just glad I get to catch up on sleep. See, for us, only the game and the team matters. We have seen each other through injuries and a lot of other struggles, personal and professional. We are like family to each other. That shows in our game too,” says Devadiga.