Kabaddi hits the sands, PKL braces to make waves in Chennai

Susan Ninan/ESPN

Muthulakshmi was a touch nervous. She had a foreboding that a bigger stall was here to wreck her weekend business. Tucking the free end of her maroon saree with bright yellow floral prints at her waist, she hurried to the entry point of the large barricaded area between the white doorway-shaped Karl Schmidt memorial and the beeline of fish and bajji stalls at the Eliot's beach.

An hour later, she'd abandoned her half-whisked batter at the counter, and was cheering a skinny seven year-old raider who was attempting an ankle-hold on a guy dressed as Santa.

Muthulakshmi doesn't own a TV and has never watched a match in her life before and the kabaddi beach festival on Saturday evening, on the eve of the PKL season opener, was to warm non-fans like her and draw existing fans even closer to the sport.

A makeshift court was set up on the sands, with tall, white cones at all four ends and a tricolor-themed white, green and bright saffron cloth roof shielding it from the late-afternoon sun. The PKL trophy rested unnoticed in a glass case before an empty dais before being sniffed out by selfie-hunters. The emcee's call of 'free entry' piqued many a casual beach goer, young mothers balancing infants on their hips, school boys in blue checkered uniforms who'd taken a detour on their way home and families out on a stroll, their footwear laden heavy with scoops of sand.

The idea was simple: Anyone could come on court for a game, and choose between three opponents, one dressed as Santa, the other as a clown and the third as Yamraaj, the lord of death in Hindu mythology. Twenty-two year old BPO worker C Abhilash was the first to volunteer and chose the rangy Yamraaj dressed in all black to go up against.

In under a minute, he walked off the court smiling after his diving ankle-hold brought down the fancy-costumed opponent, whose horns and wig were now flailing around the back of his neck. "I've been watching PKL since three seasons now, but after Tamil Thalaivas came in last year, I'm now a bigger fan," Abhilash says. He will miss his home team's first match this season on Sunday since he's working on a night shift, but is hoping to make up for it in the next couple of days.

Young boys hopped on to the court in groups of six, with Santa, already struggling with the shifting stuffing on his belly and a fake, scraggly white beard that just wouldn't stop flying into his face, looking far from up to the task. He was soon lying on his back, as the kids circled around him hopping and clapping before scurrying away with their PKL bandanna prizes.

There were tug-of-war contests, obstacle course runs and even a fan wall where you could paint your love for your favorite team and player.

Sundal (Black chickpea snack) sellers and lady fortune tellers with their wire baskets and short black staffs whose ubiquitous 'Josiyam paakareengala' (want your future foretold?) queries are hard to miss on any Chennai beach trip, milled around the barricade curiously before about going their usual business, hunting prospective customers.

As the evening wound down and the games ran out of life, PKL players Nilesh Salunke (Telugu Titans), Chandran Ranjit (Dabang Delhi) and Wazir Singh (Haryana Steelers) made an appearance on the dais. The onus of addressing the gathering fell on a shy and awkward Ranjit, hailing from Kanyakumari, since the other two players spoke no Tamil.

Ranjit's village club in Alanthakarai has produced an assembly line of kabaddi players, of which three, including him, Jeeva Kumar and Suresh Kumar, have turned out in the PKL so far. "In our village, kids in every home play kabaddi," says Ranjit, 28, a farmer's son, "It is part of growing up, part of our lives. I couldn't let go of it though. My mother never wanted me to play the sport because she thought it had no future."

But with PKL, his life has changed, so have the mindsets back home.

"Now, she doesn't scold me anymore. I think she even secretly watches my matches."