"Te-lu-gu Ti-tans! Te-lu-gu Ti-tans"
"Jeetega bhai jeetega, Telegu Titans jeetega (Telugu Titans will win)"
I reached Hyderabad's Gachibowli Stadium for the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL) Season 7 opener between the Titans and U Mumba just in time to witness the Titans' team bus welcomed by the team's fan club. Wearing yellow T-shirts and yellow caps, they chanted louder and louder to the beat of drums, waving yellow banners bearing the team's logo all the while.
Save for that burst of activity, there wasn't much going on before the match. At least not the kind one might associate with India's second most-watched sports league. Fans slowly trickled in, with much less fanfare. To be fair, though, I was at the venue nearly two hours before start time.
Much of the buzz surrounding this season has, with good reason, centered on raiders Siddharth Desai and Pawan Kumar Sehrawat, the best debutant and Most Valuable Player (MVP), respectively, of the previous edition. PKL's organisers appeared to be banking on this buzz by scheduling the Titans, Desai's new team, against his former team. This was followed by defending champions Bengaluru Bulls, Pawan's team, taking on three-time champions Patna Pirates.
PKL also seems to have gone all out to sell Desai to a Telugu audience. Chief among these efforts include a Telugu advertisement featuring Desai's raiding efforts followed by a tag line delivered by NT Rama Rao Jr., a Tollywood superstar. "This is not just a game, it's a hunt", the line goes.
The efforts seemed to be working. Outside the stadium, several fans said they were eager to watch Desai play. One of them was Ramesh, a district-level kabaddi player who has been following PKL since it began. He believes Desai has the ability to singlehandedly win matches for the Titans, but conceded that their lack of a solid second raider is a weakness.
Inside the stadium, with 15 minutes to go, every single section had several empty seats. The fan club members were still the only ones expressing any consistent, audible excitement, but that changed drastically when Desai entered the arena. The crowd roared in unison when he ran out.
Desai, unfortunately, had a far-from-auspicious start, as he failed to get going. His first seven raids were either empty or unsuccessful as he was repeatedly tackled, leading to his substitution at half-time, with the Titans trailing 17-10.
None of that seemed to dampen the crowd's spirits, though. Where U Mumba were organized and clinical, the Titans were sloppy and increasingly frustrated. For most of the first half, their reasons to celebrate were few and far between, so they seemed to cheer even more vociferously when they did have the chance. If one wasn't looking at the scoreboard or the actual action, it was hard to tell the Titans weren't doing so well.
Perhaps the loudest cheer of the night came when Desai finally scored his first successful raid, towards the middle of the second half. As the Titans finally showed some intent and made things competitive, the crowd became even more boisterous, egged on by the announcer. I looked around and every single seat in the house appeared to be taken.
All that energy showed by the crowd seemed to have had an unintended effect, though. Despite the Titans' late surge, U Mumba held on for the win. Later, captain Fazel Atrachali was asked if he was discouraged by the overwhelming support for the home team.
"When fans support the other team, I'm happy. It gives me energy."