India’s performance at the 18th Asian Games in Jakarta and Palembang showed promise. The one low point was our performance in kabaddi, a discipline that India has dominated for years. Teams from Iran stood tall as India faltered in the final stage. While the dust settles on the international kabaddi scene, the sixth season of Pro Kabaddi league is all set to start on 7 October. Here are six things to contemplate before the season begins:
Is it the Monu Goyat Season?
Rewind to Pro Kabaddi season 1: Rakesh Kumar was the most expensive player at ₹12.8 lakh. For this season, Goyat is the man to watch. The former Patna Pirates raider was picked by Haryana Steelers at the season 6 auction for an astounding ₹1.51 crore. It’s a remarkable rise for the 25-year-old from Haryana who began his Pro Kabbadi career just two seasons ago with the Patna franchise and has 250 raid points from 39 matches so far. But with Wazir Singh as the only other experienced raider in Haryana’s squad, Goyat will have to maintain his form at the Steelers.
Will Patna’s winning streak continue?
Goyat’s move to Haryana could have a cascading effect on defending champion Patna Pirates. The raiding pair of Goyat and Pardeep Narwal was responsible for 560 of the 637 raid points Patna scored in season 5, which saw them lift their third league title in a row. And with the other franchises having strengthened their squads significantly, Narwal will have his work cut out. Not only will his team need a solid show in defence, he will also need the young raiders to stand up and take responsibility.
“Pardeep desperately needs a strong co-raider,” says former player and Asian Games gold medallist and Arjuna award winner Raju Bhavsar. “Unless (they do that) he will not be able to get results for the Pirates.”
Can Anup Kumar lead Jaipur to their second title?
The former Indian captain has probably the coolest head in kabaddi. After five seasons with U Mumba, Anup Kumar has finally moved on. He is now the captain of Jaipur Pink Panthers. Kumar led India during the triumphant Asian Games campaigns in 2010 and 2014 and offers a rare combination of game management skills and all-round abilities on the mat. In 78 Pro Kabaddi matches, Kumar has 489 raid points and 57 tackle points. “Anup is at such a stage in his career that more than his individual performance, his skills to control the match are vital,” says Bhavsar. “His experience of playing at the highest level will help the Jaipur Pink Panthers but other players will have to perform too.”
With Kumar in the mix, the Jaipur squad suddenly looks like a title contender: Bajirao Hodage and Mohit Chillar in defence, two all-rounders in Deepak Hooda and Nitin Rawal, and impressive youngsters like K. Selvamani and Gangadhari Mallesh. Jaipur have failed to replicate the form that made them champions in season 1. Coach Balwan Singh will be banking on Kumar to change that.
Where is the Women’s Kabaddi Challenge 2.0?
Storm Queens, Ice Divas and Fire Birds were more than just squad names in the 2016 edition of the Women’s Kabaddi Challenge (WKC). But two years after its initial run, there’s no sign of the WKC 2.0. While the first WKC was more like a pilot, spectators and players alike have been waiting for a full-fledged women’s league. “It was the experience of a lifetime. I had never seen kabaddi grow so much,” says Bhawna Yadav, 20, of the Storm Queens team that won the inaugural challenge. She now plays for a Delhi-based kabaddi club. “This was the first time women were playing kabaddi professionally... I’ve been waiting to see if it (WKC) happens again,” says Yadav.
Sports commentator Suhail Chandhok says there are different elements to the women’s game that are fantastic to watch. “Physiologically we have to understand the difference.... If you are expecting the same speed, power of a Sandeep Narwal or an Ajay Thakur’s wingspan, you might not be getting that. But you are going to get completely different finesse, different methods of tackling and raiding,” says Chandhok. “There are some skill-sets that are incredible: the toe-touch, for instance. The speed with which they are down and back up on their feet is fantastic.”
Will Iranian players continue Asian Games form?
Iran were excellent at the Asian Games. The men’s team defeated India comprehensively in the semi-final and went on to claim gold, while the women’s team beat India in the finals. It was a statement of intent from Iran, which won gold for the first time in kabaddi at the Asian Games in Jakarta-Palembang. The likes of Fazel Atrachali (who was the highest valued foreign player at this year’s auction), Abozar Mighani, Meraj Sheykh and Abolfazl Maghsoudlou have been consistent performers in the previous seasons. Now, with a medal-winning Asian Games campaign in their stride, these players will be expected to add to the league’s excitement and competitiveness.
Can the kabaddi engine keep running?
Six seasons in four years speak volumes about the rise of kabaddi as a professional sport. The league has pretty much everything one could look for: sponsors, big-name owners, an expanding geographical presence and the guaranteed entertainment of a contact sport. And with 12 teams (four new teams were added before season 5), Pro Kabbadi is now the biggest professional sports league in India, ahead of the Indian Premier League (IPL) and Indian Super League. “Kabaddi, as a sport, has a very gladiatorial like appeal. Besides this, it’s fast paced, packaged well and very easy to grasp. The celebrity quotient as well as active engagement, both at the venue and on television, by teams and players further drive the appeal for the game, particularly among the youth,” says Albert Almeida, COO, non-movies, BookMyShow. But can this become a sustainable model? The introduction of new formats like KBD Juniors helps at the grass-roots level. But can it keep the Indian viewer engaged? “In terms of TV ratings and reach, kabaddi is the second most popular sport in India, behind cricket and the IPL. For me, six seasons of kabaddi is still a new thing and not too long a time,” says Vinit Karnik, business head of ESP Properties, the sports and entertainment arm of Group M and SportzPower. “There’s still scope for kabaddi to grow. The sheen is still there.”
[With inputs from livemint]