Piercing the stillness, a war-like cry rang out, "Gher, gher, (surround him)". No sooner had skipper Naveen Kumar barked the command, the men in red jerseys, owing allegiance to the Delhi Dashers, steadily worked their way around the Lanco Lions' player. Despite the organisers' ingenuity of installing makeshift air-conditioners, the heat was stifling. But for Soumya, the spectacle of full-grown men being involved in a pile-up was a novelty. Clapping excitedly, unmindful of the sweat running down her forehead, the eight-year-old egged on her grandfather, seated nearby on the bare concrete tier, to bring his hands together in appreciation. Amused by the enthusiasm, the elderly gentleman joined in.Equipped to seat just 2,000 the message emanating from the Dandamudi Rajagopala Rao Municipal Indoor Stadium was clear — Vijayawada had given a thumbs-up to the inaugural Kabaddi Premier League (KPL). The turnout would have been bigger had it unfolded at the nearby Indira Gandhi Municipal Stadium, with a capacity of 30,000, but the premature onset of the monsoon led the KPL to be shifted indoors. Given the sport's profile, pricing the tickets at Rs 50 and 100 seemed a deterrent, but that is what it was meant to be. "More than the gate collection, we were worried about preventing a stampede, given the limited space," said an organiser.
An after-thought of the Indian Premier League (IPL), the organisers are not laying claim to originality, but are clearly out to replicate the success of the cash-rich cricket league, albeit on a much smaller scale. "Every cricketer playing the IPL has become a crorepati. Kabaddi, a sport played on our soil, has a right to benefit too. And this is a build-up towards our efforts to get kabaddi included in the 2020 Olympics," said Janardhan Singh Gehlot, president of the Amateur Kabaddi Federation of India (AKFI).
Race against time
Though the general body of the AKFI had agreed to hold the KPL last year, the agreement was inked as late as April 15, which led the nine-day event to being pushed back from May 27 to June 8.
Apart from logistics, roping in sponsors was the biggest challenge. Time at a premium, Rao had little option but to fall back on the goodwill he had earned over the years in the insurance sector. The persistence bore fruit and KPL managed to get on board almost all the nationalised insurance and oil companies, though days before the commencement.
Despite corporate sponsorship, funds remained an issue. This is where love for the sport came to the fore. Pointing to an elderly gentleman, watching the action from the match between Krishna Kings and KPL champions, Hyderabad Horses, Rao remarked, "We required R2 lakh urgently, my friend pooled in with his resources.”
At Rs 25 lakh each, eight franchises were up for grabs but given kabaddi's lack of star appeal, single buyers were hard to come by. The "coming together of kabaddi lovers” served as a bailout and all the teams were picked up, some going to multiple owners.
The operational part taken care of, it was down to allocating players to the teams through a "transparent system of lottery in front of the media". "An even distribution of talent (irrespective of where the players came from) across the franchises ensured there were no mismatches," said Gehlot.
Level playing field
Unlike the IPL, kabaddi's version has preferred to stay away from auctions and the concept of icon players. "The moment these start, match-fixing will begin. Auctions will also hurt players' feelings, as in kabaddi, equality is the keyword," said Rao. The man is firm that as long as he is in charge — the contract with the AKFI runs for three years, the status will not change. "It's a gentleman's agreement," he smiled.
If things go as per schedule, next year's edition will be a bigger and grander affair. Not only will the matches be spread over the country, plans are afoot to include two international players per team. There are glad tidings for women players too as a KPL is scheduled later this year and will comprise four teams.