A group of men circle in on a tall, muscular player who dodges them to leap into his side of the court. To earn points in kabaddi, defenders and raiders (equivalents of forwards in football or hockey) don’t just rely on agility and strength alone: they also draw on the lessons that life has taught them.
Many of the sporting heroes, who had thousands glued to their TV screens in season three of the Star Sports Pro Kabaddi League 2016, have their roots in rural India. And most of them started poor. During a game, you get a feeling that in a sense, many of the players are breaking free from the circle of poverty or trying to catch their fortunes in their outstretched hands.
Consider 23-year-old raider Kashiling Adake of Dabang Delhi. A native of Kasegaon village in Maharashtra’s Sangli district that is often in the news for farmer suicides, Adake’s father, a wrestler, died when he was in his teens. “Suddenly I was the breadwinner of my family. I couldn’t have asked my mother to work in the field,” says Adake, considered one of the best raiders in the league.
So for a few years, apart from tilling the field, he put his sporting pursuit on hold and began working in a sugarcane factory. “I had long working hours and on some days, I survived on just one meal. But I kept my love for kabaddi alive.”
Adake’s lucky break came when his uncle, a kabaddi player, invited him to Mumbai for a trial with the Sports Authority of India. “I was selected on the second attempt,” he recalls. A kabaddi stipend with Mahindra for Rs 5,500 a month was followed by a call-up from the national team before he caught the eye of Pro Kabaddi League scouts. Last year, Dabang Delhi offered him a contract worth Rs 10 lakh.
Thanks to the money, Adake has rebuilt his house that was damaged in heavy rain two years ago. “It takes between 12-15 lakh to build a house. If it wasn’t for my uncle who guided me, I may have been still working in that sugarcane factory,” says Adake.
Adake isn’t the only player in the league to overcome grinding poverty and step into the kabaddi court. D Suresh Kumar, 36, has been toiling in the Railways’ Integral Coach Factory as a welder for two decades.
A formidable defender known for his iron-like ankle grip and solid blocks, the Chennai-based welder is a key member of the Patna Pirates team that won the 2016 edition of the league.
The son of a marginal farmer in the Kulathur village near Tuticorin, Tamil Nadu, Kumar says kabaddi is a way of life in rural India’s mud courts. “Thootukudi, our district, has a tradition of producing national-level players. When I was growing up, I looked up to Arjuna Award winner Perumal Ganesan, who was part of the team that won the gold medal at the 1994 Hiroshima Asian Games.”
Although he doesn’t disclose how much his monetary fortunes have changed, having featured in the league for the past two years has earned him something he values immensely: the respect of his villagers. “Everybody in the factory and my village gives me a lot of respect. Even my wife, who did not know much about kabaddi till now, has become a fan of the Patna Pirates after I began appearing on television.”
But if one were to choose just one rags-to-riches story from this year’s kabaddi league, one needn’t look beyond Deepak Nivas Hooda, who was paid a whopping Rs 12.6 lakh salary by the Telugu Titans last year.
Hooda grew up in Chamaria Village in Haryana’s Rohtak district that was a hotbed of the recent anti-reservation agitation.
Having lost his mother Moorti Devi at the age of three, young Deepak began assisting his father Ram Nivas Hooda in the fields while he was still in school. Then, in 2013, his father passed away after an illness. “When he was alive, my father used to tell me to focus on my studies. He admonished me when I got up at 3 am to practise kabaddi before school. Unfortunately, when I have made it big in the sport, he is not here to savour my success.”
Still in his teens when he lost his father, Hooda evolved from boy to man. His misfortune didn’t end with his parents’ demise. His sister’s separation from her husband meant he had to take care of his elder sibling and her children. “My sister and her children stay with me. During the recent anti-reservation Jat agitation, I constantly kept in touch with them to check on their well-being”.
When Hooda lost both his parents, he didn’t have a job. So he began perfecting his moves at the crack of dawn before he took up a temporary assignment. “At 6 am, I would go to teach in a private school. Then I worked in the fields in the afternoon and resumed practice in the evening. That was a tough time, but now the grind is paying dividends,” says the raider, lounging at the rooftop restaurant in Delhi’s Le Meridien hotel.
This year, Hooda, who’s now an Air India employee, has shifted to Puneri Paltan, along with his colleague and fellow raider Ajay Thakur. “We promised the management that we will take the team to the semi-finals and we have delivered on that,” he says.
Hooda refuses to divulge his salary in this year’s league citing contractual obligations, but he no longer works on his two-acre farm. “I wanted to be an engineer but had to leave my studies because we couldn’t afford my education. After joining Air India, I’ve begun pursuing a Bachelor’s in Science by correspondence.”
His aggressive style of raiding and visibility on television has made Hooda a star back home. “When I return from an international tournament, my fellow villagers turn up at the airport to pick me up. Last year, when the Telugu Titans reached the semi-finals, there was a 70-vehicle cavalcade at the airport. They welcomed me with garlands and drove me back to the village,” he recalls with a smile.
“Kabaddi’s heart lies in rural India. But lakhs of people watching it on television has made a huge difference. Now the man on the street in Delhi and Bombay also recognises us.”
* It is a full-contact team sport with origins in India. While rural India has an old tradition of playing in mud courts, the sport’s indoors version, played on the mat, was introduced for the first time in the 1990 Asian Games held at Beijing
* According to a report, close to 189 million people viewed the first 14 days of season 3 of the Pro Kabaddi League this year
From HT Brunch, May 15, 2016
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