PKL finally hits Chennai, makes up for lost time

Chennai's JLN Stadium had to wait three years and over four seasons for kabaddi's much-awaited homecoming. Debdatta Sengupta/ESPN

"Finally! Finally, kabaddi is in Chennai," a fan clad in yellow clothes, the colours of the Tamil Thalaivas, is heard rejoicing.

Amid a sea of similar-looking yellow -- some wearing whatever they could find in their wardrobe, others wearing "official" jerseys bought online while some simply sported the yellow of Muthoot Group, the team's sponsors -- it is hard to miss the energy at the Jawaharlal Nehru Indoor Stadium in Chennai.

Decked up in multi-coloured lighting, almost as if celebrating a Dussehra of its own, the stadium is buzzing with people queuing up in several lines, some waiting to get in, others to make posters for their favourite players in a 'Make your Banner' shop inside.

As 'Lungi dance' plays in the court before the playing teams enter, a roar erupts as the Tamil Thalaivas mascot, in golden and blue, starts shaking a leg with the children. Selfies and cheers of 'Tamil, Tamil' are everywhere. .

People from various parts of the state have gathered in one place to see their team play. Arun Kumar Mani, a fan coming all the way from the town of Karur -- almost 450 km from Chennai -- along with his friends, says, "We couldn't have missed the first leg of our home team in any way. We were happy to travel even 600 km, if needed."

In an 80% packed stadium, where tickets could be bought from a price range of Rs. 200 all the way to Rs. 3000, one side of the seating area is filled with posters that say 'Welcome to Chennai' alongside paintings of temples, while another side comprises posters of the Tamil team members.

It almost looks like the stadium has gone into a celebratory mode simply to mark the existence of the state's very own team -- for the first time in three years and after four seasons.

The casual observer may think of kabaddi as a north (and west) Indian sport but you need to come to Chennai to see just how deep its southern roots run.


Kabaddi and Tamil Nadu go back a long way. History - or local lore - has it that the sport, whose origin is officially credited to India but is also claimed by Iran as its own, was first played 4000 years ago in Tamil Nadu. "Yes, kabaddi was a sport that originated in Tamil Nadu," says K Baskaran, the coach of the Tamil team. "Its name is derived from 'kai' and 'pidi' which mean hand and craft in Tamil. When put together, the words mean, 'to hold hands', which again in Kabaddi is essential during defence."

Baskaran, who has been associated with the game for over 30 years, as a player and coach, expands on the kabaddi folklore. "Rajaraja Cholan, from the Chola dynasty, used to play the game. Of course, the rules were different back then, but it definitely existed even in those times," he says.

Over the years, it almost became a norm, especially in the rural areas of the state, to involve children in the game from an early age.

"I come from Tiruchanampundi in Tamil Nadu, where the game is extremely popular. People respect you for playing it," says defender Dharmaraj Cheralathan, who at 42 is currently the oldest active player in the league.

Baskaran, from Sooliyakottai, a village not too far from Dharmaraj's, echoes this sentiment. "Our times were completely different. There used to be regular tournaments. In Thanjavur district, there used to be these weekend tournaments where over a hundred teams would participate. The state-level tournaments were regular too, though the participation then was restricted to the top 20 teams in Tamil Nadu," he recalls.

"It almost looks like the stadium (in Chennai) has gone into a celebratory mode simply to mark the existence of the state's very own team"

However, with time, the craze for the game slowly ground to a standstill. Even in villages, players got involved in other popular sports like cricket and wrestling. Dharmaraj believes that kabaddi reached its lowest point in the state in the last decade itself. "Kuch badal sa gaya tha (Something had changed). The passion was something else in our times. It was of a different level. In the last decade, I noticed how people stopped taking the game seriously, focusing more on sports that would pay them well. It was disappointing."

The emergence of the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL) in 2014, the two feel, was the push that the state was perhaps waiting for.

"It changed everything. Bahut accha lagta hai dekhke (It makes me so happy to see it). Now people look at the game differently, they look at it as a career option. From children to adults, people are genuinely interested about it, and that's like half the battle won right there," says Dharmaraj.

Baskaran agrees. "PKL changed a lot of things. It was the much-needed push that the state required. Now people look at the game from a different perspective, and that really helps. The league has opened up more platforms to conduct state-level, district-level and even city-level tournaments to help us spread the game. Several teams have started participating again. It's almost like old times."


So why did the league take so long for its much-awaited 'homecoming'?

There are several reasons. One of them, ESPN understands, involved a plan to include a Chennai team from the first season but potential bidders are believed to have backed out at the last minute.

"It all fell into place this season is what I would say," tells Baskaran. "I'm just more than happy that Tamil Nadu now has a team of its own. It will give a boost to the morale of the enthusiasts here, and in the coming times, I'd like to see even more local people come out and learn the game."

"I think the delay was to do something with the political unrest here, but it's better late than never," believe Arun and his friends. Carrying a poster saying, 'All the best Prapanjan and Co.,' it wasn't hard to guess who their favourite player is. "He's a local boy and it makes us all so proud that he's doing so well. He's very good with his raiding skills and provides the perfect amount of support to Ajay Thakur, the captain of the Tamil team."

32-year-old Ramanathan has been a kabaddi fan since Season 1 of the PKL. While he played the game in school, he believes that having a team is only the beginning for the state. "It's a game that came to being in Tamil Nadu. Even though I'm glad that we have a team, I think leagues like these should only considered to be a stepping stone towards the actual goal of encouraging people to play the game more, and the viewers to look at it as a complete package, like they look at cricket."

With the rise of several home-grown players like K Prapanjan, Darshan J, C Arun and Ranjit Chandran this season, the future of kabaddi in the state looks bright. The introduction of KBD Juniors - a school-level tournament conducted by the PKL this year - is also expected to generate interest in the game among children. "As far as Tamil Nadu is concerned, I can see the craze, the popularity growing here. With several kabaddi clubs also actively participating now, almost all over the state, I can see us becoming the hub of the game in the next two-three years," Baskaran says.