From Pretoria to Dindigul, PKL finds its feet and fans in Chennai

The Tamil Thalaivas (in yellow and blue) beat Patna Pirates 42-26 in the PKL Season 6 opener. PTI Photo/R Senthil Kumar

For Pretoria-born Dean Hoots, kabaddi is an alien sport.

But he still loves being a part of its manic world.

Into his second Pro Kabaddi League (PKL) assignment this year as security coordinating officer, he's stationed at Gate No 2 of the Nehru Indoor stadium in Chennai on season opener Sunday, overseeing crowd inflow, occasionally skimming through tickets and tapping attentively into his earpiece. Leagues brought him to India six years ago. He's worked five seasons with IPL, one with ISL and the latest league to sink its teeth into a quarter of his calendar, is PKL.

"You know, back in South Africa no one knows anything about kabaddi. This is a different kind of sport. It's not rugby, it's not touch football. It's actually nothing like anything I've seen before. I watched it last year but I don't think I can say I've got a hang of it yet. Though I must say I love the energy and vibe of the sport. It just radiates to everyone watching or working on it. You don't have to know the sport, you just need lungs that can cheer," Hoots, 56, says.

The snaking queues outside the stadium and the packed stands within, which appeared to buck wildly to the effect of the blinding neon lights, fog-billowing machines and decibel-crushing cheers, offered visible testament to the league's appeal. The Tamil Thalaivas, baptized into the churn last year, are a late entrant in the league. Ironic considering the sport's roots can be traced back to the state. So can its very name - kabaddi - 'kai' and 'pidi' (In Tamil, holds hands).

Tamil Nadu is steeped in its love for cinema and actors. It's no surprise then that the home kabaddi franchise name can appear to be a spinoff from the title the state's biggest superstar goes by - Thalaiva (or leader) aka Rajnikanth. It's also a word that holds wide resonance to the north of the Vindhyas, second only to South India being an imaginary amalgamated mass whose populace gorge on noodles mixed with curd and guzzle down sambhar by the gallon, thanks to Bollywood's farcical stereotypes. Between two seasons, the Thalaivas have had a change of face. From Kamal Haasan as brand ambassador last year they've moved this season to Vijay Sethupathy, who entered films in his mid-twenties following marriage and two kids and is known to ace the 'average Joe' role. It's also perhaps an indication of the cross-section of fans that they are looking to reach out to.

On court, Patna Pirates' showstopper Pardeep Narwal's evasive duck-dive technique against circling defenders which had him christened 'dubki king' wasn't at its sparkling best. He managed to score 11 raid points but the Thalaivas, led by captain Ajay Thakur, were a marauding bunch. There was only so much that he could hold on to on his own, Pardeep was to admit later, making a pointed attack on his team's flat, rudderless defence. The first half ended with an 18-point lead in favour of the Thalaivas and the crowds who were cheering themselves hoarse with 'we want all out' chants sobered down in the final 20 minutes possibly in the wish of a closer contest.

That turned out to be an ambitious hope and the home boys strolled to a 42-26 win.

For some like C Kumaravelu who, along with his eight-year-old son, made a 400-km trek to the city from Dindigul district for the match, it is about keeping a generation in touch with a home-grown sport. "Last year I had promised my son that we would travel to Chennai for PKL, but my wife fell ill then so we had to cancel plans. This time, we're happy we could make it in time. Kabaddi namma aattam da passangagalkku teriyano (Kids of today should know that kabaddi is our sport).

For others like Hoots, PKL is about the feeling of festivity. In his first ISL stint he was stationed in Kochi for the entire three-month duration of the league. But in PKL, he gets to hop cities, visit new venues, try new cuisines, make new friends. It's like being part of this giant, colourful traveling caravan.

"I know squat about kabaddi, but it's still so much fun," says Hoots, "I wonder what being a kabaddi fan must feel like. A hundred times crazier I would bet."