When does Pro Kabaddi start in 2018

Kabaddi sport in India: the big show of the catchers

The archaic sport of kabaddi has been transformed from TV into a spectacle in India. The number of spectators is approaching cricket.

A mixture of catching and wrestling: Kabaddi game in the Indian League Photo: Imago / Zuma Press

MUMBAItaz | Every time Siddarth Desai sets off all alone into enemy territory, the atmosphere at the Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel Stadium in southern Mumbai changes. It is this expectant tension, this quiet restlessness that grips crowds when they hope to witness an extraordinary moment soon. “Siddarth! Siddarth! Siddarth! “, The chorus of a good 3,000 is slowly getting louder.

The new star of the Pro Kabaddi League prances and deceives, driving the opponent from one corner to the other. But the choir dies suddenly when the opposing forces throw themselves on the hero and bury him under them.

Kabaddi is actually a simple game. A mixture of catching and wrestling. A game that almost every Indian child has played in school. An archaic sport that probably originated in southern India four thousand years ago. But it is now being staged in India like a gladiatorial spectacle - and is celebrating great successes with it. In terms of ratings and player salaries, Kabaddi is now number two in India after all-dominating cricket.

The rules are simple: on a 10 by 13 meter mat, seven cabaddin players face each other. A so-called raider is alternately sent into the opposing half and has 30 seconds to touch as many opponents as possible and get back into their own half. The raider is not allowed to inhale during the attack, and to indicate this to the referee, he must keep saying "Kabaddi, Kabaddi, Kabaddi". The touched players must leave the field of play.

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A fate that can also overtake the raider if he is tackled before he has made it back to the center line. There are points for every player who is out, additional points for completely eliminated teams, which are then topped up again to target strength. The claim of the current season of the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL): "Kabaddi is the game of our childhood, but not a children's game."

Quite a number of records were broken

In the PKL, the game from ancient times is marketed like football in the NFL. The players rush through a tunnel filled with dry ice mist onto the playing field, and while the rich beats of the specially composed club anthems shake the hall, the round is bathed in changing light like a discotheque. Whether Bengaluru Bulls, Patna Pirates or Telugu Titans: each of the twelve teams in the league has a chic name, a martial logo and a marketable mascot. The hall speaker made every effort to sound like Michael Buffer (“Ladies and Gentlemen, are you ready for some action?”) And shot T-shirts from a pump gun into the audience during the half-time break.

After the restart, Siddarth is always sent off. U Mumba, who are currently at the top of the PKL table, had turned the game against the Haryana Steelers after an early deficit, thanks mainly to the successful raids of the audience's favorite in the first 20 minutes. But the game remains close, Mumbai urgently needs points. The 1.92 meter tall model athlete is an amazing mix of strength and speed. One of his specialties are lightning-fast, karate-like thrusts with the foot, which sometimes aim at the head of an opponent. Kabaddi is not a game for the faint of heart.

In the local league, the game is marketed like football in the NFL

The 26-year-old is playing his first season in the PKL, but has already broken a number of records. Just a few years ago, the farmer's son was supposed to become an engineer, went to the gym ("It was just about building a few muscles. I wanted to look good") and played kabaddi in muddy village squares just for fun. Now the newcomer to the league has risen to the face of the league after just a few games.

For the sports website The Bridge it is "the hottest thing in Indian kabaddi" for the daily newspaper Mint a "wrecking ball". The fact that he appears for the team from the Indian entertainment capital Mumbai should have contributed to his popularity as well as his good looks. On the huge billboards on which Desai can be seen with his distinctive chin framed by a cropped beard, it is hardly by chance that he is reminiscent of a Bollywood star.

Sponsors everywhere

One of Siddarth's great idols stands across from him that evening: Monu Goyat is the captain of the Haryana Steelers and the most expensive kabaddi player in the world. For the three-month season, the 26-year-old receives a good 15 million rupees, making him the highest-paid athlete in India who does not play cricket. The approximately 180,000 euros that Goyat collects is only pocket money compared to the 2.4 million that Virat Kohli, captain of the Indian national cricket team, last season in the Indian Premier League (IPL), the world's top-selling cricket league , deserved.

Star TV is primarily responsible for the fact that Monu and Siddarth were able to become celebrities at all. The Indian subsidiary of the media group Fox launched the PKL in 2014 and has since then systematically built it into the spectacle that the league is today. For this purpose, role models from overseas such as the NFL or the NBA were studied, but above all, how the IPL is marketed.

The PKL TV broadcasts are produced in a 41-storey glass tower in the overcrowded 20 million metropolis of Mumbai. Here, with the most modern television technology, in virtual studios and with computer animation, athletes who mostly come from humble, rural backgrounds are turned into heroes that fans only know by their first names. Star TV changed some rules to make kabaddi faster and more exciting. The matches are recorded by 16 cameras, individual players and coaches are equipped with microphones, the best actors are set up with home and background stories about characters, the viewer can see the increasing heart rhythm of the raider on the television screen, and in pre- and post-game Experts analyze what is happening in shows.

TV breaks ensure sufficient breaks for advertising. Sponsors everywhere, even the popular video evidence is presented by a biscuit maker. One is considering, says Siddarth Sharma, creative director at Star TV, whether cameras could soon be placed on the players themselves.

Teams from Iran successful

All games will be broadcast live on five channels in English and the Indian languages ​​Hindi, Tamil, Telugu and Kannada in order to reach the largest possible audience. The ratings prove Star TV right: During the last season, the PKL achieved three quarters of the audience figures recorded by the IPL cricket league, which is so powerful in India. The current contract with the name sponsor, a Chinese technology group, washes 32 million euros into the league's coffers over five years.

The PKL can be seen not only in India, but also in North Africa, the Near and Middle East. Because kabaddi is no longer only played in India. At the last Asian Games in August, eleven men's and nine women's teams competed. And for the first time the dominance of India was broken: Both competitions in Jakarta sensationally won the teams from Iran. After the men's semi-final defeat, tears flowed in the Indian team, and the local media diagnosed a "shock".

Logically, the best Iranians have also received contracts in the Indian flagship league, and there are individual professionals from South Korea, Bangladesh, Thailand and Kenya. The Iranian stronghold in the PKL is undoubtedly U Mumba: The club of young star Siddarth Desai is trained by Gholamreza Mazandarai, otherwise Iranian national coach. The undisputed leader of the team is Fazel Atrachali. The long-time captain of the Iranian national team has previously been successful as a wrestler like many other professionals and is considered one of the best defenders in the world.

A quick selfie with the stars

As captain, Fazel is the coach's extended arm. Before each raid, he gives Siddarth precise instructions on which opponent to attack and how. Since the PKL brought the old-fashioned game into modern times, technology, tactics, athletic training and infrastructure have developed rapidly. The vast majority of the almost 300 PKL players are built like professional handball players, there have long been scouting reports, the strengths and weaknesses of the opponents are analyzed in video sessions, the talent search is being professionalized, Star TV has set up a youth league and trains coaches .

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But this time the tips of chief strategist Fazel fizzle out. Too often a tired Siddarth is put on defense and needs to be replaced. The other Mumbai Raiders cannot replace him. U Mumba loses 31:35 against the Haryana Steelers in a dramatic match. Coach Mazandarai said afterwards that his two stars started the game slightly injured, but should be fit again for the next game.

Outside, in the Mumbai night, which is still almost 30 degrees Celsius, the spectators streaming out of the hall jostle in front of the large photo walls on which Siddarth and Fazel can be seen. A quick selfie with the stars. But the fans are not disappointed, they have seen their heroes. You will come back.