Deepak Hooda, Rakesh Kumar, Manikandan, Sonu Narwal. Do these names sound familiar? Perhaps not. But for a country that likes to accord only a cursory glance at any sport other than cricket, and where talented national-level boxers like Krishna Raut and Rishu Mittal are forced to do menial jobs to make ends meet, it doesn't seem unusual that kabaddi players are not readily recognised.
But don't we want that mentality to change? As the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL) - Season 2 is slated to get underway later this evening, that is the question which the country must answer.
It is true that the PKL, modelled on its more illustrious cricket sibling, had generated some attention when it was launched last year. A news report says that about 435 million people saw the inaugural edition on television. This is expected to rise this year, with the tournament planned to be telecast in over 100 countries including the US, Britain, Middle East and Latin America.
However, let's be honest. The tournament, with the involvement big corporates, Bollywood stars, a considerable amount of money and aggressive marketing led by a major sports channel was bound to attract eyeballs. In today's fast-paced world, the greatest demand is for ready-to-consume commodities that are laced with spice and provide easy gratification to the senses. That is what the Indian Premier League (IPL) - that phenomenon of a cricket tournament - achieved to do.
But has kabaddi been able to have people - not simply the die-hard fans of the sport - hooked to it over the past one year or so since PKL-1 ended? So what good is it to be good in kabaddi? It is true that the PKL has made many a player monetarily better-off. The prize money at stake this year is Rs two crore. Rakesh Kumar, the most expensive player of the league last year, had the Patna Pirates shelling out Rs 12.8 lakh for him. The PKL had given players like Nitin Madane, Rishank Devadiga and Kashling Adake, a firm ground beneath their feet. These are individuals who would probably have remained faceless if the PKL did not come along, and probably would have still had to bear incredible hardships to eke out a living.
However, for all the good things that the PKL has done, the enthusiasm generated during its inaugural edition was perhaps short-lived. One school of thought says that to stay relevant in popular consciousness, a sport has to constantly prove itself. Why should people get drawn towards kabaddi and not be happy with their cricket? Cricket has given us moments to savour. The Indian team has won trophies galore at the international stage, including two World Cups. There have been individual feats which are the stuff of legends. We may even be eager to watch Sania Mirza or Leander Paes on the tennis court or Sushil Kumar pinning down opponents on the wrestling mat, or indeed ace shuttler Saina Nehwal taking on the mighty Chinese. These individuals have done the country proud on the big stage. Has kabaddi - a game usually played in the villages as a recreational activity - enough to become a viable commercial venture? Can it spawn a legion of fans that cricket possesses? There is no reason why kabaddi should not become a mainstream sport in the country. India - a multiple gold medallist in Asian Games kabaddi - is the veritable superpower in the sport. It is a game that combines brawn with shrewd strategising and has a bit of wrestling and rugby weaved into it, which increases its appeal. And what is most heartening to note is that the game has started to travel beyond the subcontinent and now Iran is India's biggest challenger. It is therefore not without reason that the most expensive player in this year's PKL is the Iranian Hadi Oshtorak at Rs 21.1 lakh.
However, it is of utmost importance that we think beyond the PKL and try to figure out a way for the advancement of the sport generally, in India and elsewhere. It is not enough to telecast the PKL in non-kabaddi-playing countries; the youth in those countries should be enthused to take up the sport. Teams from India, Iran and other countries that have a kabaddi tradition can tour countries of let's say Europe, Africa and the Middle East and hold camps to build up interest among the youth of those countries. Britain is known to have warmed up to kabaddi in a big way. It is a pity that kabaddi is not an Olympic sport still, but there is no reason why it shouldn't be, if the game can be sufficiently globalised while retaining the level of competitiveness. If it does get included in the Olympics, watch out cricket, you may no longer be able to take your place for granted, and who knows, the PKL may even become the new phenomenon and give its more famous cricket sibling a run for its money.
India, as the kabaddi superpower has to take the lead in doing so. The PKL in its first season proved that it can be a great facilitator. For the time-being let's turn our attention towards PKL-2, which promises to be a crackerjack of a tournament, and perhaps more entertaining than the drab India versus Zimbabwe cricket fare. I can hardly wait for the kabaddi to start. Can you?