PKL: Meet veteran Nilesh Shinde, Dabang Delhi's go-to man

Nilesh Shinde attempts an ankle-hold against a U Mumba player. Pro Kabaddi League

Having won just four of their first 12 games in the Pro Kabaddi League, Dabang Delhi are currently at the bottom of points table. With ten games to go till the semi-final, they have just over four weeks to turn it around.

Few understand this pressure better than 36-year-old Nilesh Shinde, the team's right corner and their most experienced player.

Shinde, with 22 years of experience, is a national-level gold medallist and one of the most well-known figures on the circuit. He isn't Delhi's captain, but as their oldest and most experienced player, he is their go-to man.

Known for his swift tackles and powerful blocks, Shinde has seen the game of kabaddi turn from a rural sport with little exposure into a national phenomenon post the launch of PKL in 2014. "How much has everything changed! Kabaddi now has a lot of glamour, in a good way, of course. There was a time when it was all hidden in the background, but now it's spread its wings all over," he says.

A resident of Ratnagiri in Maharashtra, Shinde's journey with kabaddi started at the age of 14 when he found inspiration from his uncle, Suresh Salunkhe, a state-level kabaddi player himself. "My uncle used to play kabaddi on behalf of the fire brigade in Maharashtra. I used to watch him play every day before making up my mind about the game. He motivated me to learn and pursue my interest further," he says.

Call it destiny or sheer luck, but soon after Shinde started training for the game, he found an opportunity that convinced him to choose it as a career. "I was 16 when a friend of mine had to opt out of the school team. They were looking for a raider for an upcoming tournament. I was a beginner and used to raid at that time too, and so the role came to me. The team was full of 16 and 17-year olds. With four months of practice, we had managed to reach five back-to-back finals of Open-level tournaments, usually played by 25 to 35-year olds!"

"I just knew that I would do anything to re-live a moment like that again," he says.

While Shinde never lacked support from his family, his circumstances were never smooth-sailing. At the age of 24 - a prime age for kabaddi players - he decided to quit. "I completely stopped playing. I wanted to find a job, but wasn't getting one anywhere. I wanted to take a break and just focus on that. I wanted to earn for my family. A tournament happened months later, where I decided to join, but failed miserably. After coming back, my mother made me realise how much I missed the game and how my focus should lie on that instead of anything else."

And he hasn't looked back ever since.

After finding a job under Bharat Petroleum through sports quota, he started playing kabaddi for them. He then went on to represent the national team and was one of the key players in India's gold-medal run at the National Games in 2008. Today, Shinde finds himself in a much more secure place, with PKL giving him financial stability - he got a bid of Rs. 35.5 lakh from Delhi this year.

"I've been playing kabaddi for years, but had never thought a day would come when we all will be paid so much. With the emergence of the PKL, people have started recognizing us like never before. I'm sure this is just the beginning as both the game and the league is going nowhere anytime soon," he says.

Ask him if he'll choose the league or representing the nation then and pat comes the reply: "While PKL has given us a bigger platform and has helped increase the outreach of the game internationally, it can't come near of playing for the nation. If I'm born in this country, I should be able to do my bit for it as well, right? Pro toh mai apne liye khelta hoon, par nationals toh pure desh ke liye hai (I play PKL for myself, but I play nationals for the whole country)," he says.