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The Pro Kabaddi league has changed the rules of the game in many ways. Playing conditions and scoring systems are different now, and skill levels have improved. Not too long ago Kabaddi players got by with what the villages could collect for them during festivals but now players are paid many lakhs of rupees in the league auctions.

Along with all this, the vices have found a somewhat easier entry into the game, too, given the lack of a structure and organization unlike cricket. Match fixing, bookies, and gangsters that were once a part of professional cricket now dog kabaddi. Cricket has recovered and dusted off that reputation, so should kabaddi if the soaring popularity of the game has to sustain.

Kabaddi is played all over India and the Indian sub-continent although Tamil Nadu can claim ownership of the game. Now it has spread to other countries as well.

It is said kabaddi is a corruption of the Tamil word Kaipidi, to hold someone with hands. Kabaddi had an early exposure to international sport. As early as 1936, it was exhibited at the Berlin Olympics.

Since the 1950s, federations have been there. In 1973, the Amateur Kabaddi Federation of India was formed and framed the rules of the game.

In 1980 the rules were formalized. In 1985 the first Asian championship was conducted. Kabaddi is very popular in Bangladesh and Pakistan.

But Kabaddi remained a blip in the sports radar screen until it hit a sweet spot with the launch of the Pro Kabaddi league. Once Indians learned to stage a professional franchise-based sporting event with IPL, the experience and skillsets were crossing over to other games. When Anand Mahindra, the industrialist who supports grassroots initiatives, got involved in Kabaddi, he roped in IPL organizing expertise into the Pro Kabaddi league. The Pro Kabaddi league for instance is led by some who made their name in IPL such as Anupam Goswami and Charu Sharma.

Kabaddi comes in various forms such as Sanjeevani, Gamini and Amar Kabaddi. But today the game has standardized, in-part due to the influence of Pro Kabaddi.

The raids had no time limit in the past. Starting the 1980s, the raids need to be completed within 30 seconds and a warning is given in 20 seconds. In 1983, a bonus line was drawn in between the end line and the fault line. If the raider crosses the bonus line, he or she gets a point.

Earlier, the game was played on soil and was therefore highly injury prone. Players would get hurt in their joints, shoulders and fingers.

Kabaddi is spectator sport. There’s a war-like atmosphere that can communicate to the TV audience well. It’s not entirely uncommon to find Kabaddi being played in city apartments as a result of the professional league.

In 2002, the Malaysian Open was played on synthetic foam which has since become a benchmark. It has made the game more raider-friendly. Nationals as well as state and district level tournaments have moved to mats.

In the past, Kabaddi players would train in farmlands. The film Vennila Kabaddi Kuzhu brought out the realities of the game in its time (2009). Villagers would pool in money during temple festivals and organize tournaments. Prize money would be apportioned from the collections.

Manathi Ganesan, an Arjuna award winner from Tamil Nadu, is a legendary player whose inspiring story includes training by running between villages carrying hay. S Rajarathinam was the first Kabaddi Arjuna award winner from Tamil Nadu.

Manathi Ganesan getting the Arjuna award in 1995. Ganesan is a legendary player whose inspiring story includes training by running between villages carrying hay. Source : Wikipedia Commons

Today, players are bid for several lakhs of rupees in auctions. Jeeva Kumar and Cheralathan are two stars from Tamil Nadu. Junior Tamil Thalaivas scouts for talent among Tamils.

Pradeep Narwal was priced at Rs 1.65 crore by UP Yodha at an auction. Training methods have improved. There is money to be earned and Kabaddi may well be transitioning away from being a rural sport.

Kabaddi is spectator sport. There’s a war-like atmosphere that can communicate to the TV audience well. It’s not entirely uncommon to find Kabaddi being played in city apartments as a result of the professional league.

The speed of the game is increasing since raiders can attempt swift movements to dodge defenders without worrying about injuries. There’s a premium on observation powers and anticipating defender moves. Chain tackles are more successful. All these get more play on the synthetic surface. Footwork is more important and the game is more skill-based for a contact sport although older players feel there is more thrill when played on natural soil.

Kabaddi is poised for a surge but needs a structure throughout India like cricket. An official body that is strong enough to build the sport across levels is required

In the north, Kabaddi dovetails with the akhada culture. Muscular men training in wrestling pits often transition to Kabaddi. The toughie element is accentuated in those parts of India.

Yet, even as all this happens, the national, state and district federations have little strength. Quite often there are no officially recognized associations. Many are run by individuals with a limited vision. As a result, professionalism has not percolated.

While the Pro Kabaddi league has put together several aspects from IPL to curb malpractice like bookies accessing players, there have been transgressions. There is an integrity officer in each team but reports to team management and is not independent.

The Amateur Kabaddi Federation of India and the International Kabaddi Federation support Pro Kabaddi but don’t run it, unlike in cricket.

Kabaddi is poised for a surge but needs a structure throughout India like cricket. An official body that is strong enough to build the sport across levels is required.

Just consider the figures! In its inaugural season, Pro Kabaddi clocked 435 million viewers. IPL was at 560 million.


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