As COVID-19 virus brings world sport to a standstill, here at ESPN India it has inadvertently given us a moment of pause. To think about what sport means to us and how in fact, it all began. Every sports journalist is eventually, at heart, a fan - of an athlete, a team, an idea.
We decided to return to that fan in each of us in a fresh series from members of our staff talking about their recollection of the moment when sport first reeled us in. Here we will remember what it was about a game, an exchange, a piece of action, a shot that first lit the torch which, despite the years, the deadlines, the scandals, the controversies, the shocks, still continues to burn.
Kabaddi World Cup final, India vs Iran, October 22, 2016, EKA Arena by TransStadia, Ahmedabad.
2016 was my first year as a sports journalist. And ESPN (still is) my first job. This was supposed to be my first reporting assignment away from our office headquarters in Bengaluru, and my first solo travel. Safe to say, I was a nervous young wreck, but very excited nonetheless.
I had covered the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL) Season 4 right before the World Cup took place, and even interviewed a few players when they came over to my city for the Bengaluru leg. However, travelling to a different state and meeting so many known, unknown, lesser-known players was an experience I had never had before.
I remember landing in Ahmedabad a day before the semi-finals, and directly heading to TransStadia for a press conference with the teams. All packed up and awkward, I entered the stadium with some heavy baggage (no, literally) and was amazed at how the team captains and coaches were happily chatting away and eating like it was a regular get-together. I immediately felt comfortable. These were not stars, there were no airs. To my surprise, I could go and talk to anyone I wanted to in the group. There were very few people from the media, not more than six to seven publications -- kabaddi was getting popular, yes, but PKL's true riches were still a couple of years into the future for the players and the sport.
But I was honestly expecting an entirely different scenario. I was cynical too, perhaps. Most of the kabaddi players were huge, six-footers all of them. And here I was, at just over five feet, hoping for them to take a 22-year-old seriously enough to give interviews. To my surprise, whoever I went to, greeted me sweetly with a namaste and had enough patience to give elaborate answers to every single question I asked them. Coach Balwan Singh addressed me as beta (child) and India captain Anup Kumar, now a coach for Puneri Paltan at the PKL, made me sit with him while he had lunch and endearingly told me about how he became a police officer.
I was thrilled at how... rooted everyone was. Most of them hadn't got enough media attention through their careers, and now that they were, they were making the most of it. I was allowed to attend their training sessions, click pictures and even sit with the team for chat sessions -- something we can't do even during the PKL nowadays, and this... this was a World Cup.
TransStadia was huge. It was an indoor stadium built for kabaddi. And people in Ahmedabad were, in a word, elated. Even the autowallahs and cabwallahs who took me to the stadium told me how proud they felt that a Gujju boy -- Kiran Parmar -- was a part of the Indian team.
When I was taken to the media box, I saw many more journalists -- it was suddenly a full house with a lot of regional dailies now covering the big match.
Now here was the thing. They all knew kabaddi was 'India's sport', so losing the World Cup wasn't even an option for these players. On the other hand, Iran had a strong team. Captain Meraj Sheykh had played against half the Indian team at the PKL and knew exactly what their strengths and weaknesses were. This strategy worked until the first half, and Iran led by a distance. The second half, though, as we all know, saw Ajay Thakur come into his own like never before as he led India to yet another victory. The loudest cheers, though, came for local boy Parmar, who didn't even play the match.
In the end, there was the team doing bhangra to Rang De Basanti songs, and the viewers screaming and shouting 'India, India, India.' The press conference later went happily, the emotions running too high for any of the players or coaches to speak much. It was nice to see them so happy though, hugging and crying, still having no airs about them but just happy to have retained the Cup.
Kabaddi players were amazing people. I could be taken seriously despite having a baby face. And it took 15 minutes to travel 11 km in Ahmedabad (Bengaluru, please take note).