PKL: No crowds, no problem, players make up with full-on action

Season 8 of the Pro Kabaddi League has taken place inside a strict bio-bubble, necessitating no crowds in the arenas. Anirudh Menon

A glass soundproof case. Loud, incessant music-and-commentary blaring from speakers right behind the seats. No crowd energy. As I sat down to watch the Pro Kabaddi League live in 2022, it was all about as different from watching it in 2019 as you'd expect. The world isn't the same anymore, what chance did kabaddi stand?

Three years ago, my colleagues and I had experienced magic - a sold out Kanteerava indoor stadium yelling and screaming as first Naveen Kumar and then adopted-son-of-the-land Pawan Kumar Sehrawat rocked up and delivered big time. It had started well before they even took to the mat, actually. As you walked up to the indoor stadium, you could feel the energy emanate from inside. That palpable buzz of human adrenaline and anticipation which we so took for granted.

It was all part of the reason behind the PKL's improbable success. The league's tweaked rules had made Kabaddi one of the most spectator-friendly of sports, attracting viewers, cutting across gender, age and cultural divides. Everyone wanted a piece of the action -- unmatched evening entertainment for some, pure sport for others. Consequently, there was a real, physical energy that surrounded the mat from the get-go, almost as intense as what rose from the hyper-athletes on it.

This time, however, there was... nothing.

Now, the glass soundproof case was understandable. In fact, it was a necessity. The teams, and their support staff, and the production crew and the league officials (altogether around 1000 people) had been living in a bio-bubble within the Sheraton Grand in Bengaluru for more than two months - shuttling between rooms, gym and convention centre (where the matches were held). There had been a small outbreak of COVID-19, the omicron variant simply unstoppable, but the league had managed their people well and after some quick rescheduling were holding the semifinals of the PKL as scheduled. No mean task. So, of course, they didn't want anyone from the outside - a handful of journalists, a few VIPs, a few guests of the league - risking anything.

This was the first live event I had attended since the final of the Indian Super League in 2020, a hurriedly closed door affair, and we have been watching closed-door sports on our televisions for what feels like a decade now, but the silence still hits you like a wall. Even as 24 athletes warmed up and took a lap around the court, there was no real feeling that you were watching live sport again.

Till the first tackle flew in, that is.

Surender Gill went for a raid, Neeraj Kumar took his presence as a personal affront and launched himself at the Yoddha man, contact coming mid-air. You could feel the thud the two men made as they smashed down to the mat. Soundproof glass or not, that you heard.

After that, it was 80 minutes of being awed all over again by what these athletes are capable of. Men the sizes of small boulders were flung into the air like they weighed nothing. Despite the obvious danger, they came back for more, jumping over, and squeezing under masses of men who see violent tackling as you and I would see breathing.

Awed by Mohammadreza Chiyaneh, tall and lanky, slithering around his corner of the court, stopping anything that moved - even if that was Pardeep Narwal, the GOAT.

By Chiyaneh's teammates, a defensive unit so fierce you could see the confidence visibly drain out of UP Yoddha as the minutes ticked on.

By Naveen, who had his knee bandaged up (and hidden under a regular knee cap), and was still faster than anyone on court, still match-definingly better.

By Pawan, who as is his wont, single-handedly kept Bengaluru Bulls fighting in their semifinal, jumping over tackles and brushing aside mid-air, mid-waist tackles.

By Manjeet Chillar who stopped younger, fitter men in their tracks by force of will as much as brute strength.

While watching matches daily on a small screen, it's easy to normalise all that raw power, all that athleticism. When it happens ten feet in front of you... the hairs on the back of your neck pay attention. There is a reason this league was able to sell out stadiums with ease back when no one had heard of social distancing -- there really is nothing normal about any of it. These are incredible athletes doing incredible things.

It's not just the physicality of it all, either. At one point in the second semifinal, Joginder Narwal tackled Chandran Ranjit, drawing blood across both their cheekbones. A couple of emergency staples and Joginder was on the mat defending the next raid. A couple more for Ranjit and he was back on court raiding. Incredible.

And that's what you take away from the whole thing, that feeling of incredulity at the physical prowess and the courage, at the skill and the calmness... a reaffirmation of what makes sport what it is. Of what has made PKL the success that it is. Even in this most sanitised of versions, there really is nothing quite like it.