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'Mitti ka game' kabaddi returns to its roots

The Haryana leg of the PKL has been a huge success. Jonathan Selvaraj

Surjeet Narwal's body was sore from a gruelling practice session on Monday evening, but the demands made on him had only just started. The 26-year-old, who is a part of the Haryana Steelers franchise of the Pro Kabbaddi League (PKL), found his phone buzzing angrily with multiple messages, all making the same request. "Bhaishaab ticket dila do (Please arrange tickets for us)," the texts read. Narwal will have to call back and explain apologetically. "I have to tell them that I really don't have any passes to give. I've given away all I have. I really have. This is new for me," he says over the phone. He is interrupted in the middle of the conversation by another request for a ticket. He apologizes once over the phone and once more says no to the hopeful in front of him.

A ticket to watch a match of the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL), in its Haryana leg, seems to be a must-have in this part of the country. It's also desperately elusive. That doesn't stop people from lining up on match day outside Rai's Motilal Nehru School of Sports, where the games are being played. Rai is a few miles drive down the Grand Trunk Road from Sonepat towards Delhi. There are more than a few scalpers here but they too are hoping to get their hands on a ticket to turn around for nearly three times their value. The printout on the wall of the ticket box -- with match dates followed by the words 'sold out' written in capital letters -- indicates their hunt will not be an easy one. By any marketing terms, this leg has been a success. Tickets are not cheap. The most inexpensive ones -- for a seat high in a corner of the 2,000-capacity indoor venue -- have been priced at Rs 400. The ones closest to the action retail -- if you can score them without the markup -- for Rs 1,000.

One explanation for this demand is simply a lack of supply. To put it bluntly, there isn't very much to do in Sonepat or even Haryana, which borders the national capital of New Delhi. It isn't swank, there are no glittering malls and the shops shut by 9pm. So when the PKL, possibly the highest-watched Indian sports league after the Indian Premier League, comes to town for the very first time, it is understandably a rather big deal. Olympic bronze medallist wrestler Sakshi Malik was there on the first day, while Yogeshwar Dutt -- another bronze winner at the Olympics -- has sat in the audience too. It's not just celebrities though. You have teenagers with spiky hairdos clicking selfies and pictures captioned #dhaakadboys next to stoic old men wearing the pagdi (turban) with their arms firmly crossed. There are even a couple of Chinese engineers from one of the many international companies in the industrial townships nearby. The locals carry homemade posters, make an ear-splitting racket measured at 122 decibels for the TV cameras. They indulgently shout back "Ehi mera Haryana (Such is my Haryana)" when an emcee yells out "Doodh, dahi ka khana (A diet of milk and curd)".

There is a certain irony to this scenario -- of the PKL's belated arrival in Haryana. For while it is the motherlode of talent across sports, no state is as synonymous with kabaddi the way Haryana is. Players from the state -- and in particular the Sports Authority of India (SAI) training centre in Sonepat -- have formed the bulk of the Indian team from the time the national squad won the inaugural gold medal awarded for the sport at the 1990 Asian Games. They have packed sides in the PKL too -- 93 players in just the 2017 edition -- despite the league deeming the state unworthy to feature a team of their own until the fifth season. Haryana Steelers, who are making their debut in the PKL this season, have 13 local players in a squad of 22.

It's not just Indians who wonder why this is so. Locals in Nizampur, a village on the Delhi-Haryana border with a reputation for producing prodigious talent, say that some time before the 2014 Asian Games in Guangzhou they had a few visitors from China. The guests apparently visited the local stadium, questioned players about their diet and even took soil samples from the village in an effort to unravel the mystery of how the hamlet produced such talent. "Yeh shayad hawa ki hi baat hai, ya paani ki. Par kabaddi hamare khoon me hai (It may be because of the air or the water, but kabaddi is in our blood)," says Mohit Chhillar, a Nizampur native and one of the stars of the Steelers.

"Go to a village and ask anyone. They will say, 'Hum khelte the (We used to play).' From every house there will be some child who is playing. Nicker nahi hogi, par khelenge (They might not have shorts, but they will play)," laughs Narwal who hails from Rindhana village near Sonepat, another hub of the sport in Haryana. "We pick up this craze from childhood itself. When I was seven or eight years old, my father would ask me who did I kick while raiding or how did I escape from a tackle. That's all he cared about."

Narwal says that the passion for kabaddi would have remained intact even if he was not a part of the PKL. It doesn't matter if the players are competing in the circle-style kabaddi (that is played on mud) or the national style of the Asian Games and the PKL (that is played on a rectangular synthetic mat). "There are so many tournaments that take place all around the year," he says. "Some village or the other will be hosting a tournament. There is always a game going on."

A rather less romantic explanation for Haryana's passion for the sport comes from Ranbir Singh Khokhar, coach of the Steelers. "Kabaddi could get you a job," says Khokhar, one of the pioneers of the sport who trained athletes at the SAI centre in Sonepat and was the coach of the first Asian Games gold-medal winning team in 1990. Khokhar is also largely self-taught. His kabaddi career started only when he joined the Indian Telegraph Department in the technical branch in 1972. "Back then Haryana played kabaddi, but only at a local level," he says. "We weren't very serious about it. It was only after it became a demonstration sport in the 1982 Asian Games that things changed. You could get jobs in the Army and railways and because of that a lot of youngsters started to play the game."

Jobs would be provided by the Haryana governments too. "A lot of places in India, like Maharashtra and Karnataka, had a history of playing kabaddi," says Ramesh Bhendigiri, the Maharashtrian coach of the Dabang Delhi franchise. "But no government gave jobs in the police and state boards like Haryana. They supported coaches who trained youngsters across the state. That makes a big difference."

And there were other incentives too. "Like wrestling it is an inexpensive sport," says Khokhar. "And also like wrestling, it suits us. We like contact sports." That willingness to get into a scrap has shaped the state's players into the most formidable in the country. "There are players who are more skilled and those who are less but the one thing you can say about a Haryana player is that he will never give up," says Narwal, who himself is playing despite still recovering from surgery to his knees. "His head might be bloodied and he might be carrying injuries but as long as he is standing, he will stay in the game."

Neither Narwal nor Khokhar would have had had a problem if kabaddi had continued just the way it had. Politicians continued to lavish money on the sport -- the Haryana team won the Rs 1 crore Deen Dayal Upadhyay Memorial Tournament in February this year -- and it is incredibly popular in the villages of the state. Yet even as he marvels at the crowds of people who struggle to find a seat in the multi-purpose hall of a Haryana school, Khokhar thinks the sport is on the verge of something even bigger. "It's different now," he says. "In the past, kabaddi was a sport for village children. If you had money you wouldn't play it. Now our players are making so much money. These days I'm seeing children in public schools playing kabaddi too. It's like cricket for them now."

It's unusual for Narwal too. "It's strange being seen as celebrities," he says. "Because we are on TV, people will ask to take pictures with us. We have suddenly become like actors. Hum mitti ka game khelte the, aur ab asman chu rahe hain (We played a game associated with mud and now we are touching the sky)."