They were two of the brightest stars in the last Pro Kabaddi League season. Nitesh Kumar was the first, and only, defender in Season 6 to complete 100 tackle points and 19-year-old Naveen Kumar - also the youngest player last season - ended it as one of the top 10 raiders with 172 raid points. But they share something more than their success - they share the same kabaddi roots, the Future Kabaddi Heroes (FKH) programme.
FKH, launched two years ago by the PKL and Amateur Kabaddi Federation of India (AKFI) as an initiative to encourage young players from rural and urban regions to pursue kabaddi professionally, has been met with a good response. "Last year, around 85 players were drafted into the Season 6 auction pool from the FKH program. For Season 7, 74 new young players have come through and are being trained for the Pro Kabaddi League teams," says Anupam Goswami, League Commissioner of the PKL. These selected players will now be drafted in the PKL auction pool on April 8 and 9 under the 'New Young Players' category, hoping for a debut like Nitesh and Naveen.
Receiving almost 3000 applications this year, the first phase of the program was conducted in 11 cities, including Patna, Chandigarh, Chennai, Nagpur, Guwahati and Lucknow. Explaining the process, Goswami says, "This is a comprehensive three-stage process. There are two sequential selection rounds of candidates by a panel of kabaddi experts, who select only the candidates with the highest level of skill and physical fitness. At the third stage, the selected players go through a rigorous training program for PKL."
A panel, comprising names like K Baskaran, coach of the Indian Kabaddi team that won gold in the 2016 World Cup, and Banani Saha, coach of the Indian women's team at the Asian Games last year, is in charge of ensuring the selection and grooming of quality players. "The selection panels essentially look for proficiency in technical skills, team play, positional play and physical fitness," says Goswami.
The scouting process usually starts early in the year, with the multi-city trials commencing in February and the final stage taking place in Mumbai in March. The selected participants then form seven-member teams and compete with each other on a daily basis - in order to get up to speed with PKL's three-month-long format - and are divided and supervised by professional coaches. They then become a part of a training camp in Mumbai along with specialised trainers, physiotherapists and nutritionists until the time of the auctions.
"This is the only program of its kind that gives young players like myself the chance to develop into professional kabaddi players. The selection and training is intense, but it covers physical abilities, nutrition programs and game strategy, all of which are necessary to perform at PKL," adds Nitesh. "If not for this program, I'm not sure whether I would have been given the opportunity to be a part UP Yoddha."
However, there is a certain criteria to be fulfilled. "The candidates must be of 18-22 years of age and should not have been listed in any previous PKL player pool before," says Goswami.
Then what happens to the ones that are above the age limit but want to participate in the PKL, like, for example, 26-year-old Siddharth Desai, who in his debut season last year created quite a stir with his super-quick raids? "The only solution is to find opportunities to excel at the Senior Nationals conducted by the AKFI," he says.
When asked about the biggest takeaway of FKH so far, Goswami says, "It has been a very successful project to prepare the generation next for the sport of Kabaddi. It has created a clear pathway to the PKL auction pool for high potential kabaddi players between the ages of 18-22, thereby serving as encouragement to take up kabaddi at a professional level."
Other than introducing the league to younger talents and finding potential players for the national team, the plan is to expand the program in the coming years. "We hope to expand the geographic scale of the program to an all-India basis which would help discover new talent across newer kabaddi hubs," says Goswami.
As the PKL continues to grow every year, it will be interesting to see who the emerging stars will be this season.