Kabaddi is not new to India -- its roots can be traced to the epics -- but its latest avatar, professional and televised, has given the sport a new dimension, and a new problem: the club vs country conundrum. For the players, though, it could be the clichéd game changer -- giving them recognition, respect and, above all, cold hard cash.
"Playing in the national team was difficult. Nobody knew about us, no one came to congratulate us. We won a gold medal, yet we were unknown," says Surender Nada, a part of the national team that won the gold at the South Asian Games in February.
Today, he is the captain of Bengaulru Bulls in the Pro-Kabaddi League (PKL) Season 4 and one of the most expensive players with an auction price of Rs 30 lakh.
"It feels good to be a captain. Kabhi nahi socha tha yahan tak pahuchunga (I never thought I'd come this far)," he says.
With Pro-Kabaddi making a mark on the television audience, the players now find themselves in the midst of a fan following beyond their hometowns.
"As a child, I remember the way people used to show respect to the kabaddi players in my hometown in Nizampura. They were an inspiration for all. The kind of craze I saw for the game back then helped me see it as my future too," says Mohit Chhillar.
Chhillar, 23, known for his defending skills, became the most expensive player in the league when Bengaluru Bulls bid Rs 53 lakh for him this year. But he's unfazed by the success. "I'm too young to think about profit and loss. I let my father take care of all this," he says.
Years ago, Chhillar got rejected, not once but twice, by the Delhi state team. He was then roped into the Rajasthan team and eventually the national team.
"That was the best time of my life. Desh ke liye khelne ki baat hi alag hoti hai (It is a different thing altogether to play for the country). When we won the gold against Pakistan in the finals of the South Asian Games, I thought I had it all. It was one of the best moments of my life," he says.
Echoing a similar feeling, teammate and raider Rohit Kumar says, "It's good to be a part of a league like Pro Kabaddi. It has given the game a lot of exposure. People now recognize us because of it. But it wouldn't be right to compare it with the national games. The feeling you get there is totally different," he says.
Nada, however, had a different take. While he loved playing for the country, he credits the league for making him what he is.
"I love playing for the country, but it's different and the difficulty level is more over there," he says. "We have to push ourselves to the extremes every day because we have the responsibility of a country. Pro Kabaddi, on the other hand, does not come with that kind of pressure. And it has given us the recognition that we couldn't get in the beginning. Very few people knew about the game or the players before this. This has certainly made life easier. If I have to say which one I prefer, I would choose the league."
Is there a difference between the amateur and professional games? "I don't think there is too much, apart from a few rules," says Chhillar. "The main difference is the level of pressure. We don't get second chances at the international level. You play to win or you are out. It is more flexible in the Pro Kabaddi tournament."
In the South Asian Games, for example, the fixtures are put together in a round-robin format where each team has to compete with every other before getting through to the medal rounds. In the PKL, the eight teams play each other home and away -- a total of 60 matches.
The busy schedule -- PKL pre-season training lasts several months and can be intensive -- leaves the players with little time for their families or friends. Kumar, who was adjudged the most valuable player last season, is pursuing his graduation but rarely finds time to go to college. "My entire childhood was spent focusing on kabaddi. To date, whenever my friends tell me about an event in college, I can't help but miss being there," he says.
Chhillar, however, has found a family in his team. "I don't miss home that much. I talk to them every day. They too wanted me to reach here, after all. Also, my teammates are no less than a family now," he says.
The league has allowed several players from other countries to participate, helping the sport create an international platform for itself. But critics say this may cause harm to India's dominance in the sport. "It's great for kabaddi as a sport, but yes, it does make competitions tough for us with countries like Iran now excelling in it," says Nada.
The bottom line though is that going pro has given the players far more options. It has evolved from a largely rural and playground sport to one that can hope for a brighter future.
"Meri toh ab yehi khwahish rahegi ki ek din ye game Olympics tak jaaye aur hum usme gold leke aaye (I would now only hope for a day when this game becomes an Olympic sport and we win a gold there)," says Chhillar.