International Khiladis

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With Rs 1 crore and brand new tractors at stake, the kabaddi circus has gone international and is set to become India’s new IPL, reports Inder Sidhu

Wrestlemania Indian players square up against their Pakistani counterparts. Photo by Anshika Varma

A HULKING figure — half-man, half-tank and with a back you could project a movie onto — ambles over to a table in Ludhiana’s five-star Majestic Park Plaza and, in a voice as improbably shy as the question he’s about to pose, coos, “Spanish boltain ho?” The Spanish sardar, 27-year-old Sukhwinder Singh, is lolling around the hotel lobby, looking slightly confused as a battery of turbaned men brandishing impressive-looking cards anchored to lanyards buzz with an air of consequence. Singh manages Spain’s unlikely all-Punjabi kabaddi team (a motley assembly of shopkeepers, restaurateurs and jobbers) and the sprightly card-bearers are coordinators for the nation’s first-ever Kabaddi World Cup.

Held in seven cities across Punjab between April 3-12, nine teams from such unexpected kabaddi hotbeds as Italy and Australia competed for international bragging rights — with India prevailing over a scrappy Pakistani side in the finals to bag the Rs 1 crore top prize. The sheer scale of spectacle — attendance for the final hit two lakhs, with busloads more watching on giant screens outside — was a huge draw for Punjabis, who flocked to the kabaddi circus as pilgrims to a newly-sanctified shrine.

Flag Day Pakistan players prepare to charge the field amid wild cheers. Photo by Anshika Varma

The bemused, and sometimes bewildered, athletes seemed dumbstruck by the attention, though they certainly enjoyed the perks — especially the Volvo coaches provided to each team. For many players, kabaddi is a passionate sideline, not a fulltime gig, so the equal treatment of amateurs and professionals was something of a pleasant surprise.

Victory lane The Canadian squad cheers after beating Italy for the third place. Photo by Archana Dhiman

Sukhwinder, a Barcelona resident originally from Saiflabad in Punjab’s Kapurthala district, has taken an odd route to the games: while on holiday in Ludhiana this January, Singh convinced an official to allow him to bring over a Spanish side. Short five players, Singh barely managed to scrounge up a few more bodies in the interim for the competition.

All for the pind The Indian team celebrates their victory as CM Parkash Singh Badal and Deputy CM Sukhbir Singh Badal look on. Photo by Archana Dhiman

Comedian and sometime kabaddi commentator Bhagwant Mann is elated by the public response: “Kabaddi is a pindu [village] sport, not a gora sport.” Organisers, he says, have finally managed to package the kabaddi as entertainment, and “people always love to be part of a festival!”

As for the athletes, though, perhaps the promise of a shiny new tractor for the man of the match proved too tempting to pass up. Next up: Kabaddi Premier League?

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