In a corner of the Mumbai University campus in Kalina, three men in orange and black T-shirts and shorts step out of an auto-rickshaw and enter the sports complex building. As we enter behind them, we spot 20 men standing in a row, quietly answering a roll call. The men stand tall and look imposing with their bulked-up bodies and intense gaze. It isn’t until they walk over to us that we realise how misleading appearances can be. This is U Mumba, the 22-member Mumbai team for the Pro Kabaddi League starting today (July 18).
Kabaddi, a typically Indian sport which lost its popularity over the years, got a glamorous facelift with the introduction of the Pro Kabaddi League last year. With a massive viewership in its first season (435 million viewers, according to Forbes), the tournament not only gave kabaddi a mainstream platform but also put the spotlight on the players and made heroes out of them. Their fan following has seen them being mobbed on the streets for autographs and selfie requests being made a movie night. They also have a dedicated following of nearly 95,000 fans across all social media platforms.
The ‘Mumboys’ — as their fans call them — are now pumped up for their second season. “Until last year, kabaddi was a rural game. Today, everybody wants to know more about it, and about us,” says Rishank Devadiga (23), one of the star raiders of the team.
Though U Mumba lost to the Jaipur Pink Pathers last year in the final, they are hoping for a strong comeback. The team is under a strict fitness routine that includes weight-training and a protein-heavy diet. Their training begins as early as 6.30am and goes on till 7pm, in shifts. With such a physically demanding regimen, all the players have developed hulk-like physiques. “Even our fans find us intimidating at times,” says Vishal Mane, the right cover defender for the team.
Appearance notwithstanding, they are a shy bunch. The players are unfazed by the hoardings, crowds chanting their names, and even the posters made by their fans (depicting them as The Avengers). They enjoy the attention, but it doesn’t seem to distract them from their game. As we speak to Devadiga and Mane, they nod their head and smile politely to everything we say. Devadiga’s response, a few times over, is, “Our aim is very clear. We want to win this time around.”
Even as their Instagram handle picks up close to 500 followers, they remain unaware of it. Ask about the photo shoots around town and Mane says, “The photographer came up with the idea and we did as told.” Jeeva Kumar — who did acrobatic stunts inside the Mumbai Metro for the campaign — merely grins when asked how it felt. As a team, they simply got a day off, a closer look at the city, and a chance to eat vada pav, a strict no-no in their usual diet plan.
They mention how glad they are, now that their families understand their passion for the game. “The age of kabaddi is here,” Devadiga says.
Players to watch out for:
* Anup Kumar (RAIDER) – Vice captain of the Indian national team, he holds the title of the Most Valuable Player from last season.
* Vishal Mane (DEFENDER) – Holds the title of the Best Defender from last season.
* Surender Nada (DEFENDER) - Was named the second-best defender of season one.
* Jeeva Kumar (DEFENDER) – Represented India at the South Asian Games in 2014 and the Tamil Nadu state team.
Catch the game:
The opening game of the season will be played at: NSCI, Dr Annie Besant Rd, Worli
To book tickets, visit bookmyshow.com/sport/kabaddi
Tickets: Rs 800 onward
The tournament starts airing on Star Sports at 7.50pm on July 18.