Kabaddi is Bangladesh's national sport but you'd never have guessed

After independence, there was a need to promote a sport that broke with Bangladesh’s colonial past and had roots in the country. Kabaddi fit that bill. ESPN

A year after Bangladesh gained its independence Prime Minister Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was asked to decide on national symbols for the new country. The ilish or hilsa was a no-brainer for the national fish while the doyel or magpie robin was made the national bird. But there were a few eyebrows raised when kabaddi - not football, nor cricket - was named the national sport.

Back then, in 1972, football was big in Bangladesh while cricket was the winter sport, both part of the sporting culture from the days of the Raj. The country's founder, Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, was himself an avid footballer in his youth while his eldest son, Sheikh Kamal, was a cricketer.

But Bangladesh's formation and its immediate aftermath was chaotic and bloody, and competitive football and cricket leagues were not a priority for the new nation. It's also possible that there was a need to promote a sport that broke with the colonial past and had roots in the country. Ha-du-du, as kabaddi was known, fit that bill.

"This was an easy game to understand, and it was what the farmers played in the villages during festivities. Prizes included cattle, radio, rice...The sport is part of our culture." Abdul Jalil

Abdul Jalil, the most decorated kabaddi player in Bangladesh - having captained and coached Bangladesh at the Asian Games and South Asian Games, and also the first kabaddi player to receive the National Award - says that the choice of sport was easy.

"This was an easy game to understand, and it was what the farmers played in the villages during Eid and (Durga) Puja, and other festivities," Jalil said. "Prizes included cattle, radio, rice...The sport is part of our culture. Ha-du-du had wide participation."

And so the sport, officially renamed kabaddi, was here to stay. Subimal Das, another well-known former player, says that his childhood was spent playing football but he eventually took to kabaddi. "It was usually played in the highlands, during the rain. I remember playing in the mud in many villages in Bikrampur, where I was brought up. Folks in Barisal, Faridpur, Dhaka and Narayanganj are fond of kabaddi. It's a simple game - the rules changed slightly as it became an international sport, but the core of it remains the same," he said.

"It is still a rural sport. People go back to their home villages during Eid and other holidays and play a game of Kabaddi. There are matches between two paras [localities], or married vs unmarried, and similar divisions. There is no infrastructure, though, for kabaddi in Bangladesh. Stadiums are made for cricket and football, but kabaddi, at the basic level in villages, is played on mud unlike the international game, which is played on a rubber mat."

Kabaddi never really had an urban following - especially not in Dhaka, where football and cricket were the mass sports. League matches - once the leagues resumed - drew large crowds with clubs like Abahani and Mohammedan Sporting Club leading the way. Hockey was also big till the 1990s, while kabaddi remained in the background.

This, despite some international success. Bangladesh won silver in the 1990, 1994 and 2002 Asian Games, and bronze in the 1998, 2006, 2010, 2014 editions. They also won silver in the South Asian Games in 1985, 1987 and 1995 while in the Asian Championship, they got second place in 1980 and 1989. In the World Cup, they were third in 2004 and 2007; the women also earned a third spot in the 2012 World Cup. Essentially the best team after India.

But it hasn't translated into material benefits. Sponsors are hard to come by, in contrast to how football and cricket - and footballers and cricketers - have been flush with money in the past couple of decades. Kabaddi players, since 1995, have been completely dependent on the defence services - border forces, army, navy and police mainly. They are given jobs in these forces, and also represent them in the national competitions.

"What Abahani and Mohammedan have done for cricket and football, kabaddi needs a club to do the same." Abdul Jalil

Jalil, who coached Bangladesh in many of these competitions and is known as a coach who has introduced the sport to thousands, said that despite the official recognition and importance given to the sport, it never caught on.

"Unless a player is backed by a club to train for at least three months in a year, given housing and other facilities in the process, we will not have many interested in the game. What Abahani and Mohammedan have done for cricket and football, kabaddi needs a club to do the same.

"I credit the forces teams for backing these players for all these years but we must also remember that these forces employ them full time. So their day job is that of a soldier, and then they are kabaddi players," said Jalil.

He could be talking about Arduzzaman Munshi, the Bangladesh team captain who's a petty officer in the navy. "This sport is my life, so I try to train and play all the time," he tells ESPN. He explains how he got into the sport and remained hooked. "When I was a child in my village in Bagerhat district, I used to see my elder brother play ha-du-du.

"In 2005 [at the age of 21], I joined Bangladesh Police; I also enrolled as an athlete, and one day I came across a kabaddi match. I told the coach that I could play kabaddi. He asked me why I wanted to switch from athletics to kabaddi, and I said I was good at it and I wanted to represent my country. So in 2008 I appeared for the police team. I did well in three tournaments that year and in 2009, they called me up to the Bangladesh team's training squad for a tournament in Vietnam. I was made captain in 2014, and have held the post till now."

Habibur Rahman, general secretary of the Bangladesh Kabaddi Federation, is optimistic about the sport's future in Bangladesh. "It has immense popularity in the remote areas, sometimes more than cricket. They play Ha-du-du, the rules are different, it's much easier. The recent Independence Day tournament drew big crowds at the Mirpur indoor stadium, which proved that people are still in touch with this sport. We were happy with the response."

But he does have a note of regret. "These events," he says, "will greatly help the next generation though I would say that the backing we receive from the authorities isn't up to the mark."

What's helped is TV coverage of India's Pro Kabaddi League - it taps into the Bangladeshis' love of sport. "The PKL definitely helps us," says Habibur. "Previously our players got international exposure only by playing Asia Cup or the World Cup. Now they are gaining a lot of experience in this league. We have had some players in previous editions, and three more in this years' tournament. Even our referees have done well, as we have seen in our correspondence with the PKL. They have also reached out to us since the beginning of the competition."

"It's a monsoon sport," says Subimal Das. "If you go to the rural areas of Bangladesh even today, you can still see middle-aged men playing kabaddi."

So if you're travelling in Bangladesh round about now, take some time off and hit the hinterland to see their national sport in action.