Sonali Shingate should have been preparing for the Federation Cup when we contacted her. Fresh off the kabaddi nationals in Jaipur last month, where she was named player of the tournament, she'd been hoping to ride on her form and continue her success.
Now, thanks to Covid-19 and the nationwide lockdown, her hopes -- and the fragile calendar for women's kabaddi in India -- have been dashed. The Federation Cup, featuring the top eight teams from the national championships, has been postponed indefinitely.
And so Shingate is cooped up at home, making the most of her extended time off. "I don't know where my time goes the entire day," she says. "Whenever we are in camps, we keep thinking about when we'll get to go home next. Now that I have that time, I'm making the most of it."
Shingate, 25, who enrolled for an MCom degree in 2019, was set to give her first-year exams. With those postponed too, she's catching up on all that she has missed. "I'm spending a lot of time studying," she says. "I love learning new things, and accounts had always been my favourite subject. Usually, I never get so much time to study with the national camps going on."
While the Pro Kabaddi League's blue-eyed boy Pawan Kumar Sehrawat came out as the top performer in the men's event, Shingate dominated the women's event at the nationals. In reality, Sehrawat sits on one end of the spectrum, his popularity at its peak. Shingate finds herself without the backing of a hit league or sky-high fame, and yet feels content -- and on a par with Sehrawat.
"The senior nationals are very important for us," she says. "Railways have been winners in this tournament for a really long time [every year, barring 2018, since it started in 1984], so to defend that gold medal is of extreme importance to us."
However, she is aware of the stark contrast between men's and women's kabaddi in India. "I can't say that we are not popular. Of course, the men are in a better position because of the PKL, but people who follow the sport know us too," she says.
Shingate credits the Indian Women's Challenge (IWC) in 2016, an experimental tournament held by the PKL organisers, for the popularity. "It gave us an identity of our own," she felt. "Because of that one tournament, we gained recognition as well as knowledge on how it all works behind the scenes, and how it feels to be on television."
However, unlike the PKL, which has been a runaway success, the IWC was discontinued after that one-off experiment. "The biggest problem was that our tournament happened on the same mat as the men," Shingate explains. The regulation size of the field is different for men (11x7m) and women (10x6m) in kabaddi. "That made our performance difficult. Since our court was now larger, our range had to be larger too."
The result was that the women's league was seen to be slower in comparison to the fast-paced PKL. Played on the same mat, the size of field -- larger in terms of length and width -- made the women struggle more than usual. Shingate, who scored the first IWC point, believes the women deserve another shot.
"If we are given a court of our own, a women's league will work as well as the men's," she says confidently.
Shingate didn't always aspire to be a kabaddi player -- she was, in fact, interested in cricket as a child. However, since professional cricket training required resources, which her family couldn't afford, she took up kabaddi. "There's no fees required to learn kabaddi," she says. "All you need to do is to wear a T-shirt and shorts, and just play."
Getting inspired by watching kabaddi players at a park close to her house near Lalbaug in Mumbai, the first thing she did after finishing junior college in 2012 was to enroll for the Shivshakti Mahila Sangh, a popular women's kabaddi club in the city. "I reached out to the club and told the coach, Rajesh Padave sir, that I'm interested in the game. He told me to start coming to practice and said we'll see how it goes," she says.
Even though she liked being part of a team, it took her a while to adjust to the sport. "For a game like kabaddi, match confidence was something that mattered a lot. I lacked it," she says. "There were several times when I used to fail as a raider. I used to go for raiding and come back after getting tackled too soon." Constant encouragement from coach Padave and seniors and former India players Gauri Wadekar and Suvarna Bartakke helped her grow and find her own niche -- bonus points. "They advised me to focus on taking bonuses because I had the height," says the five-foot-seven Shingate. "That's how I started acquiring more techniques and skills."
Known as the bonus expert of the Indian team, Shingate explains the significance of bonus points. "If a bonus is taken successfully, the defence of the other team remains the same," she says. "From a raider's perspective, it's easier to take bonus points with more people than fewer people in defence. So instead of taking a touch point, I focus on them to acquire an early lead."
In the eight years that Shingate has played the game, the toughest result to swallow was defeat at the hands of Iran at the Asian Games final in 2018. It was the first time since the inception of the women's event in 2010 that the team returned without a gold. "We could've won gold had we pushed harder. Our standard is gold. To get a silver then becomes a disappointment," she says. "That moment still lingers in my mind. No one was smiling. But we will make a comeback."
She feels that India's win at the South Asian Games last year was the beginning of it. "That was the first international gold for me, so I can never forget that," she says. "That's our level. That's where we must strive to be."
Asked about her plans for the future, she says, "I don't have any elaborate plans. I just want to keep representing India internationally. I hope that we too have a league of our own. There are several women who play the game but don't have a job. If a league happens for them, then they too will have some financial security."
As of now, though, she's just happy working out at home with her elder brother. Her cheat days have increased since groceries are now limited, but she doesn't mind. "I work out twice a day and play with my brother a lot," she says.
And what does she play? "Anything that makes me sweat, honestly," she laughs.