Celebrated abroad, ignored at home: The journey of India's best Sepak Takraw player
Sepak Takraw or foot-volleyball originated in Malaysia before spreading across the globe. Close to three decades ago it arrived in India, via Burmese immigrants in the North East. Currently ranked sixth in the world, India has seen a meteoric rise in the sport because of the country’s geographical proximity. And a product of India’s sepak revolution is Akash Yumnam Singh.
His name might not be a household one, but the 19-year old’s performances on the international stage have made everyone take notice. The 2015 ISTAF Championship, which is the sport’s World Cup equivalent, saw him register the fastest ever recorded kick (122 km/ph) in Sepak history.
He said, “I am very happy that my hard work is being recognised by the international level. I hope India can get better and consistently face the best in the world.” Nick-named the ‘Indian Tornado,’ he first represented India at the fledgling age of 16.
India’s 16-year-old prodigy
Born in Imphal, Akash’s baby steps towards Sepak came en-route his passion for football. He said, “When I was 12 years old, I was introduced to football. We are two brothers, he used to play for a local club, and I also started attending training. From there I started playing for various youth clubs. It was around this time I saw a lot of people playing Sepak. So I started playing it casually.”
An exceptional performance at the National Junior Championship caught the eye of the Indian selectors. He said, “By 2012 I made my national debut, slowly I realised I was getting better at Sepak. It was at this point that I decided to switch completely.”
By now, India had already established itself as a power-house in Asia, after winning a Kings Cup and two World Championship bronze medals. However, Akash’s addition added flair and consistency to their game.
General Secretary of the Sepak Takraw Federation of India, Yogender Singh Dahiya says, “Right now Akash is among the five best strikers/spikers in the world. Before 2012, we lacked a player with good height, but since he came in he has added a different dimension to the game. Most international teams also took notice. It’s his unpredictable nature on the net which sets him apart.”
Akash averages a jump height of 8.5 feet, which makes the ball extremely difficult to block. A solid spiking performance helped India win silver at the 2015 French Open, losing only to world number two team Malaysia.
In 2013, Akash buoyed India to a World Championship bronze medal win, in the event which was held in New Delhi. Close to 70 countries broadcasted it around the world, but India failed to cover the event within its own shores. That did nothing to hide the fact that this was a landmark achievement, which also put the country among the Speak Takraw’s elite.
Akash said, “It was a great victory for the country and me personally. Nothing is better than winning in front of your home-crowd. It gave me a lot of confidence.” Akash was also selected by Malaysian Super Sepak Takraw League side Panthers as one of the foreign players, but the tragic death of his father ended those plans.
Dahiya said, “When he goes to international tournaments people fear him; I have even heard coaches saying it would be so good if he was born in Malaysia or Thailand.” This particular statement holds true for the state of Sepak Takraw in India.
Despite several major successes in 2015, the sport is yet to be included in the government’s ‘priority’ category. Dahiya added, “I wrote three letters last year, highlighting our performances abroad. But we are yet to get a response with regard to that. Lack of jobs are killing the sport in India.”
Despite being one of the best players in the world, Akash is yet to receive any financial help whatsoever. The Manipur government is yet to allot him a job, and corporate sponsorship is non-existent. The state has allotted jobs for only National Games Sepak winners. Someone who didn’t participate in the National Games, but won a medal for India, is ineligible for the job.
Dahiya said, “Only a few states offer Sepak Takraw players jobs like Bihar, Nagaland etc, but they do it because they want to. This is because we don’t come under the priority and it is not necessary for the government to helped us financially.
“We have 20,000 active players in India, several of whom want to do it professionally. Someone like Akash, who is respected worldwide, shouldn’t be worse than a national ball badminton player. That sport is not played outside India.”
Forced to try out for ISL franchise due to lack of finances
The Manipur-based player’s state worsened when his father passed away. He is now the only bread-winner in his family. Last year, he was forced to try out for the North East United U-19 ISL team, in order to earn some money. However, such a long time outside football saw him fail to make the cut.
As per the ISTAF player ranking, Akash is ranked fifth in the best striker/spiker ratings. However, back home in India, he is being forced to switch to a more lucrative sport, despite showing excellence in another.
He said, “I tried out for several football clubs last year. But it’s not the same sport, the skill sets are very different. So I didn't make it, right now I am the only bread-winner in the family and I have to sustain them. I am looking for a job that can also help me sustain my Sepak Takraw career.”
Dahiya added, “Right now, the world is embracing this sport and we already have a good team. If the Ministry can give us a slight push, we will be one of the finest in the world and we can give players like Akash more exposure.”
India’s next major tournament is the Asian Championship to be held in March, where the national team will deploy both Akash and Delhi’s Harish Kumar as their main performance outlets. But if the Sports Ministry doesn’t make Sepak Takraw a priority sport soon, we risk losing the best player India has ever produced.