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Lights, camera on PKL-mania: Diary of a kabaddi convert

Jonathan Selvaraj

It is the first thing you notice, the noise. As I stepped into the Kanteerava Indoor Stadium in Bangalore to witness my first live professional kabaddi match, it caught me off guard. Shrill, loud, incessant.

The blare of the announcers, the relentless beat of the music, the high-pitched whistles and slightly manic shouting of a capacity crowd. Add to it the TV-centric lighting - the kind a millennial would dream up if asked to recreate a 70's disco. The assault on the senses was complete.

Now, thanks to peak-hour Bangalore traffic, and my own incredibly poor recollection of where the main gate to the stadium complex was, I reached the venue late, and as I took my seat, the game was already underway -- Dabang Delhi K.C. v Jaipur Pink Panthers, Delhi leading 16-9. It took me a while to gather my thoughts, but one thing struck me immediately.

This was different.

I had watched PKL matches on TV, of course, and I have admired the sport and its proponents from a distance, but it had not felt quite like this. Not only was the noise louder than I had ever imagined, the sport itself looked different. The spaces looked tighter, the mat smaller, the athletes bigger, the tackles scarier.

The thwack of muscle against muscle as seven men crashed into one hapless raider was plainly audible, despite the loudness of the white noise that enveloped the venue, as was the thud these athletes made when they hit the mat under the weight of one of those tackles.

And that's when the men under the lights came into sharp focus.

There was the electric Naveen Kumar, all of 19, a boy in a men's game, whizzing around the mat with such speed it was like he, and he alone, was on roller blades.

There was Joginder Narwal, Delhi's captain, a squat man with a bear-trap of a tackle, face wizened with years of devotion to his sport, screaming support to his mates and throwing challenges to every man in Jaipur pink.

There was Jaipur's captain, Deepak Niwas Hooda, a tall, powerful man with great long strides and impossible reach, who kept his team in the game in the early stages, before stepping it up a notch to allow Jaipur to open up a sizeable lead in the second half.

Jaipur maintained that lead for large parts, but then the Naveen show began. And with three seconds to go, Delhi led by a point, 45-44. Knowing that they would get a draw if they stopped the Delhi raider from crossing the white line that marks the successful execution of a raid, Jaipur stepped up into an aggressive stance mid-court. Every sinew of every hyper-athlete in that chain seemed to scream, 'Try neh, try crossing this line. We will end you.'

Up stepped Naveen. Young, fearless, up-for-it. A dash to the right, a quick step to the left, and a kick to the face of Sandeep Kumar Dhull - Delhi had sealed a remarkable comeback win 46-44.

The crowd roared its approval. Neither Jaipur nor Delhi awoke any tribal royalties amongst the locals, but they were helpless. They had to respond, loudly, to what they had witnessed. The sheer quality of the spectacle made it impossible not to.

And that was merely the appetizer before the main event - Patna Pirates taking on the home team.

The announcer had barely gotten halfway through saying "Benga---", when the stadium was assaulted with such a great broadside of whistles, cheers, shouts, and frenzied applause that it threatened to make the phrase 'bring the roof down', a reality.

The defending champions were in the house, and their home crowd was making sure their team heard, and felt, their love for them.

Whatever small elements of the manufactured, the artificial, that had appeared in the shenanigans of the announcers and the DJs, especially in the early stages of the previous match, disappeared into the cool Bangalore air with the arrival of the Bulls.

The cheers were real. The devotion was real. I looked down at my hands. The goosebumps were real.

Every single soul in the building was on their feet as Pawan Kumar Sehrawat, last year's MVP and the team's absolute superstar, stepped up for his first raid. The crowd screamed "Paaaawaaan! Paaaawaaan!" and defying science, took the decibel levels up a notch when he scored his first point. The announcer's prompts were drowned, his services no longer required.

The authenticity of the situation was drilled home when Patna's Pardeep Narwal walked in for his first raid.

A sudden hush fell over the crowd. Crouched low on his haunches, the primal menace that oozed out of every pore of the league's most high profile raider, swept the arena.

The two teams kept it close for the first ten minutes, but then Pardeep turned on the style. An implausible dubki here, a running touch there and the Patna skipper had opened up a considerable lead against a Bengaluru defence that seemed to cower under the full glare of his aura.

The Patna defence, meanwhile, was on Alcatraz-mode, led by the unconventional defending of the fiery Iranian, Hadi Oshtorak. For large parts of the second half, they held a nine-ten point lead. But all the while the crowd never let its volume drop. Every Bengaluru touch point, every bonus, every tackle, every successful review was cheered with vociferous intensity.

Inspired, their team put up some immense defensive plays, and with a minute to go, the lead had been cut down to two. Patna 38-36 Bengaluru.

Enter, stage smack-bang-center, Pawan Sehrawat. He tied the score with 0:56 to go with a two-pointer that showcased the very best of his incredible athleticism. The crowd were back on their feet again and that's where they remained as Bengaluru sealed the win, 40-39.

At the end of it all, Pawan stood there, middle of the mat, flicking his wavy hair off his forehead with the careless élan of a man who knows fully well that all eyes are on him, and loves every bit of it. The crowd lapped it up.

Now, I had spent the best part of an hour on the travel to the stadium doing what everyone does when stuck in one of Old Airport Road's endless jams - asking myself existential questions. 'Why do people put so much effort into following a bunch of grown adults leaping about or kicking a ball or running really fast or simply hitting each other really hard? Why do we care so much? Why is it such a big part of our lives? Why do we love sport so?'

As if it needed any further reiterating, I realised as I exited the venue, that I had gotten my answer. The sheer, giddy, happiness that radiated out from the mass of people leaving the stadium, from within myself.

This was why we love sport. This is why the PKL is real.

If ever this PKL bandwagon rolls into your part of the country, do yourselves a favour, take a punt. Skip out of office a little early. Steer clear of the movies and the malls and the pubs. Brave rush hour traffic. Take your friends, your family. Go see Naveen Kumar and Pawan Kumar Sehrawat and Pardeep Narwal and Hadi Oshtorak in the flesh.

Go watch the kabaddi. You'll become a convert, guaranteed.