A journey from the fields of Muzzaffarnagar to leading India to its first-ever Kabaddi World Cup: The story of Sanjeev Baliyan
Over the last few years, the sport of kabaddi has grown leaps and bounds in terms of popularity. The game is known to have a rich history, having produced some of the finest kabaddi players in the world who have helped India assert dominance in the sport.
Among the all-time greats to have played the sport, Arjuna awardee Sanjeev Baliyan is one of the most notable names, with him having etched his name in the record books with multiple achievements.
Born in Muzzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh, Baliyan was fond of playing cricket from a young age. However, his coach saw potential in him and asked Baliyan to consider switching to kabaddi. Soon enough, Baliyan led his school team to a title in a District and State level tournament in only his maiden stint in the sport.
Following his brilliant performances in the domestic scene, Sanjeev landed himself a role with the Indian police force and represented them in an All India tournament. Baliyan was a part of the 42nd Senior National Kabaddi Championship in 1994, and soon shifted to Railways. He went on to claim gold for his team in 1998 and 2001, based on which he was named as the best player in the National Kabaddi Championships.
On the back of his performances in the Nationals, Baliyan was picked for the Indian side that participated in the 13th Asian Games (Bangkok) in 1998. He also participated in the 8th SAF Games held in Nepal in 1999. A match-winner back in his days, Sanjeev was named as the vice-captain of the Indian team that took part in the 3rd Asian Kabaddi Championship held in 2000.
Sanjeev Baliyan established himself as a prominent player for the Indian kabaddi team just as the sport was making a transition from mud to mat. After winning gold in the FAJAR International Sport & Culture tournament and the Malaysian Open kabaddi tournament in 2002, Baliyan was handed the role of captaining India in the first-ever Kabaddi World Cup that was held in Mumbai in 2004.
India remained unbeaten in the entire competition with one-sided victories in the group stages and the knockouts as well. In the final against Iran, the hosts managed to outplay the latter in every department of the game.
Skipper Sanjeev Baliyan orchestrated his team's victory in the final, scoring 17 raid points from 16 raids to etch India's name in the history books and lead his side to the first-ever Kabaddi World Cup title and was also rightly named as the man of the tournament for his efforts.
Although there wasn't much competition for India in the international scene back in the 2000s, Sanjeev Baliyan's remarkable efforts for the team helped them clinch on multiple occasions. He had a pivotal role in India's gold medal win at the 14th Asian Games, 9th SAF Games, and the Test Series held against Bangladesh.
Baliyan's talent came to the fore at a time when the players had low socio-economic status with no prior incentives gained from the sport. For all his contributions to the rise of Indian kabaddi, he was bestowed with the Arjuna Award.
Having won the gold medal four times in the Senior Nationals, Sanjeev Baliyan played for the Indian Railways till 2005 and won the best player award five times (1998, 2000, 2001, 2003, and 2004). Sanjeev's record of claiming the best player award for eight consecutive years in the Inter Railway Championship - from 1997 to 2004 is a remarkable feat that no player in history has achieved to date.
After his retirement from the game, Sanjeev Baliyan took up the responsibility of coaching the Indian Railways and also helped in grooming many kabaddi stars of today. He has also coached the Patna Pirates and U Mumba in the Pro Kabaddi League and most recently found success in leading Indian Railways to another gold medal in the 66th Senior National Kabaddi Championship in 2019.
A champion player during the days when no one knew much about the sport, his longevity in serving kabaddi for more than 26 years has been commendable. With such momentous achievements during his tenure, once Sanjeev Baliyan decides to put his feet up, he will certainly be regarded as one of the best players and coaches to have graced the game.Published 03 Feb 2020, 17:50 IST