Now that the ancient Indian contact sport has got a booster shot with the ongoing Pro Kabaddi League, it may be a good time to discover the rock star of the sport, its only Arjuna Award winner and India's Kabbadi King.
Ready to roar: Kumar leaps over defenders in a signature escape manoeuvre popular as the Lion's Jump
On the days he is not terrifying catchers deep in 'enemy terrain' or demonstrating his signature Lion Jump, Rakesh Kumar, 32, dons a uniform and asks train passengers to show him their tickets. Kumar may be the most recognisable face of kabaddi in the country, but off-season, the son of a farmer from Nizampur, a village on the outskirts of Delhi, still has to perform his duties as chief ticket inspector with the Indian Railways.
With the reputation of being the world's best raider, Kumar, the most valuable player (MVP) in the Pro Kabaddi league (the player who attracts the highest bid from team owners at a players' auction), bagged a contract worth Rs 12.8 lakh from the Patna Pirates franchise
Meet the strugglers
It is perhaps appropriate that Kumar excels in a sport where 'struggle' is a routine manoeuvre. For the uninitiated, the format of kabaddi involves a raider foraying into the enemy camp to touch rival defenders while they try and prevent him from returning to his court. This they do by holding him in a melee of bodies known in kabaddi parlance as 'struggle.' A good raider will ensure he touches rival defenders and reaches the touch line to score.
Bangalore-based sportscaster Charu Sharma, whose firm Mashal Sports runs the Pro Kabaddi league, says Kumar's MVP tag is well deserved. "Kumar's versatility and experience, apart from a wonderful attitude - just aggressive enough to keep the opposition unsettled and calm enough to inspire his younger teammates - is a skill set that is just right to lead a team," says Sharma.
The boy from the dehat
The hero of two Asian Games victories (Doha, 2006 and Guangzhou, 2010), Kumar grew up in the dusty by-lanes of Nizampur, an urban village in the Dilli dehat, a region that has traditionally been a nursery of wrestling talent. Hailing from a farming family (his father owns 13 acres of land near the Delhi-Haryana Tikri Border), Kumar was poor at academics.
"My elder brother Narain also played kabaddi. But gradually he moved away from sport to help my father on the farm. Once my parents realised I wasn't interested in studying, they encouraged me to pursue kabaddi," he says.
Kumar says the residents of a cluster of villages in the Dilli dehat area bordering Haryana, are crazy about kabaddi. "For a recent match in Delhi where I was playing, more than 20 people from my extended family and village turned out to cheer for the Patna Pirates. They were the loudest group in the stadium!" he says.
Although it has its origins in the Indian subcontinent, teams from other countries such as Bangladesh, China, Iran, Japan, Malaysia, South Korea, Sri Lanka and Thailand also participate in the Asian Games.
In Kabaddi circles, Kumar has gained the respect of fellow players for his never-say-die attitude. One incident that helped cement this reputation happened during the 2010 Asian Games.
"In the final against Iran, my head accidentally collided with my colleague Alok," he recounts. "Both of us were bleeding but I was knocked out cold. When I regained consciousness, the coaching staff wanted me to go off the court. But it was an important match. So, I decided to stay and combined with Alok to score 15 points against Iran to help India win the gold medal."
The Lion Jump, Kumar's signature escape manoeuvre which is a big hit with kabaddi fans, sees him leaping over defenders to land gracefully in his own court. It has even drawn comparisons with MS Dhoni's Helicopter Shot for its popularity. "It is not the only weapon in his arsenal. Kumar can attack, defend and strategise, as well," says Charu Sharma. "But it certainly is the most eye-pleasing."
With TV audiences getting familiar with kabaddi stars in the league - apart from Rakesh Kumar, Anup Kumar of U Mumba and Ajay Thakur of Bengaluru Bulls are also in that category - he is happy the sport is getting its due. "I've won medals for India at the Asian Games, but I've never got the attention that I am receiving during the league," he says.
With the kabaddi league attracting Bollywood stars, Kumar is feeling like an almost-famous celebrity. The stars who came to cheer for Abhishek Bachchan's Jaipur Pink Panthers included his favourite Aamir Khan. "I told Aamir I'd watched all his movies. But he said he had become my fan after watching me play."
Still, like many other sports, the money and endorsement opportunities in kabaddi are not a patch on the gentleman's game. "Well, that is cricket!" shrugs Kumar. "People are fanatical about it. We too win medals for the country but are not spoken about in the same breath."
What would a certain cricketer-turned-parliamentarian called Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar have to say about this, one wonders.
HOLD YOUR BREATH
A raid involves harmony between mind, body and breath. So, the training routine of kabaddi players includes breath control exercises and yoga.
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From HT Brunch, August 24
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