Monu Goyat admits to a touch of nerves, as he and his fellow members of the Indian national team camp for the Asian Games, crowded around a television set in a tent in Sonepat on Wednesday evening to follow the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL) auction.
"I knew I would get a good sum, and maybe finish in the top one or two, but I thought I would get a bid for one crore [approx. $ 148,000]. Magar yeh toh bahut zyaada hi chali gayi (but this exceeded all my expectations)," says the 25-year-old raider, who eventually became the top buy at the auction, going to Haryana Steelers for INR 1.51 crore, almost a quarter of a million dollars.
Once the auction finished, the volume of congratulatory calls and messages was so overwhelming that Goyat had to switch his phone off to get a good night's sleep.
This is now the highest sum of money paid for a non-cricketer in an Indian league, and it charts the rising profile and value attached to both kabaddi as well as Goyat. For perspective, the first PKL season in 2014 had the national team captain Rakesh Kumar being picked up by Patna Pirates for a little more than a twelfth of Goyat's price.
When Goyat started his journey in kabaddi, he was still in class five, and was just hoping to follow in the footsteps of his uncle Vijender, an India hopeful who failed to make the Asian Games teams in the 1990s only because of recurring injuries. Goyat says he never saw his uncle play in the flesh, but his family spoke about his exploits so often that it inspired him to carry the legacy forward.
Haryana's Bhiwani district might be better known for the exploits of its boxers, but Goyat's village of Kungar is one of the few where kabaddi's popularity trumps that of boxing.
Like with most sportspersons in India, Goyat would find the game one of the safest ways to get into a profession - in his case, appearing for Haryana in school games and Under-19 tournaments enabled him to enlist with the Army in 2010. He is still a Havildar, and represents the Services now in domestic kabaddi. In fact, the reason he was confident of getting a good bid at the auction was his domestic form in 2018, having played a fine supporting role to Pardeep Narwal in bringing Patna their hat-trick of PKL titles last season.
Goyat was one of the stars for Services in their narrow defeat to Maharashtra at the national championships in Hyderabad in January, and then helped them edge out Karnataka to the Federation Cup title in Mumbai the following month. There was another Rs 1 crore prize money tournament in Haryana, where Goyat topped the scoring charts. All of these performances led him to believe that the demand for him would be high. "Confidence tha, game ko dekh ke (I was confident, just because of my form)."
From his early days, Goyat knew what role he wanted to perform in the sport. "A defender can catch you and take a point for his team. But a raider is different - he can change the game by picking up two or three points in one raid," he says, admitting that there could be a perception of the raider being the most important part of a team. "A raider can destroy the balance of the other team. A good raid can also lift the morale of a team that is trailing. A raider is like the last man standing."
Two seasons of the PKL have helped improve the financial condition of Goyat's family - he lives with his grandmother, parents and an older brother, who has completed his engineering studies, and is yet to get a job.
"When I started off in the sport, we didn't have any property of our own. Over the last few years, we have got a house and improved our standard of living somewhat. I will see what everyone needs and spend on them accordingly. I can't afford to splurge it all."
"Aur doosri baat chal rahi hai, ki itni ummeed se liya hai Haryana Steelers walo ne (the other thing in my mind is that the Haryana Steelers have bought me with such high hopes)," Goyat's thick Haryanvi accent is unmistakable with the rounded vowels, hard-palate sounds and inflection unique to his region. "I can't see the money, all I can see is that I need to prove myself."
Goyat wants to realise his dream of playing for India at the Asian Games in Indonesia this August, and then taking his new team to the PKL final.
Should he get there, who could bet against him being the last man standing?