There was something special about the evening of 22nd October; the atmosphere in TransStadia Arena, Ahmedabad, was as electric as anything you would've ever seen. Nitin Tomar came on for a raid, which was a bit of a formality because India had already ensured that the 2016 Kabaddi World Cup would remain in the country. As soon as the final hooter blew, Ajay Thakur, the star of the night, broke into a bhangra jig, which you would normally see at a typical Punjabi wedding after a few drinks.
However, a compelling thought came to my mind as I was watching Ajay Thakur and Rahul Chaudhari dance in the middle of the arena. What did that dance symbolise, what did it stand for? In the immediate sense, it might have been an expression of winning a tough match 38-29 against a more than worthy opponent in Iran. But if you think deeper, it was a metaphorical reference to signify the rise of kabaddi in the country and the sport becoming a part of national discourse.
A couple of years ago, when the Pro Kabaddi League began, there was a wave of cynicism among sections of the media and sport aficionados who thought kabaddi would not be able to establish itself in a country that loves cricket and nothing else.
Perhaps reading too much of Mark Nicholas, The Guardian and Twitter opinions have blurred our vision when it comes to the India that lives in Indore, Ranchi, Jalandhar, Bhubaneshwar, Sangli, Kottayam and Manipur. This India is far away from the concept of Karl Marx, or the need to dedicate an entire day wondering whether Paul Pogba will move to Manchester United or not.
The India living in these regions want a sport that they can play without having to make an investment, without having to involve DRS. An answer to all those needs has emerged in the form of kabaddi, which is on the rise in the country and is likely to grow exponentially in the coming years.
India has been playing kabaddi for decades, but it took a brilliant idea of monetising the sport and broadcasting it on national television for people to take notice.
Anup Kumar, a man who holds the same position in kabaddi as probably Michael Jordan in NBA (by no means is that hyperbole), was virtually unnoticed at the national level until a couple of years ago, despite having won innumerable plaudits for his country. It is when he danced around the kabaddi mat at prime time on national television as the captain of U Mumba did people realise his unmistakable genius and talent.
With the 2016 Kabaddi World Cup, India’s kabbadi players have taken the spotlight; those very players who would feature bi-annually in a local Haryanvi, Marathi or Hindi newspaper are now the national heroes. All of a sudden, people on Twitter and Facebook are asking each other, “Who is Ajay Thakur?”. That, more than anything else, represents the magical rebirth for a sport that had been lying in the dungeons of Indian consciousness for decades.
A lot of people were taken aback when they heard about England, USA and Argentina sending kabaddi teams to the 2016 World Cup. Argentina? Are they not supposed to play football and hockey? Why would they play kabaddi? Shocking as it might sound, the Argentinian team played the World Cup and although they did not win a single game, they looked to be enjoying it.
South Korea is the last country you would expect to have a kabaddi team. But not only do they have a team, they were also the only ones to beat India during the course of the tournament.
The success of the 2016 Kabaddi World Cup lies not in India winning the trophy (that was kind of inevitable), but in the fact that a raider from Thailand finished in the top three on the list of most raid points.
To start comparing kabaddi with other sports, be it football, hockey or cricket, would be gross injustice at this point in time. However, taking into consideration the potential the sport has and the success of the Pro Kabaddi League as a commercial entity, it's entirely possible that it earns the same level of popularity as those other sports in about a decade’s time.
In a country where politics, religion, crime and entertainment dictate national discourse, the emergence of a sport (other than cricket, because it is a religion) like kabaddi needs to be cleverly engineered.
For future and current kabaddi players to be able to trust a sport, incentives need to be provided by governing bodies – in this case, the International Kabaddi Federation (IKF); the youngsters need to think of it as a possible alternative career choice. For that to happen, grass root level tournaments, conducted with the same finesse as national ones, would need to take place. And above all, and a lot of patience would be required.
The 2016 Kabaddi World Cup, aside from being another display of India’s unmistakable dominance, was a symbol of hope on which the sport could grow into a giant in the years to come. Maybe in 2020 or 2018, whenever the next Kabaddi World Cup is organised, we would hear a kid in Sonepat say, “I want to become Anup Kumar” or someone in South Korea say, “My hero is Jang Kun Lee.” Maybe.Published 24 Oct 2016, 14:57 IST