"Nobody plays cricket here. There is no room for it. Kabaddi is the only sport played here, and it has been like that for the last 25 years" says kabaddi star Sonu Narwal, talking about his home town Sonipat in Haryana.
Narwal shone for the Puneri Paltan in the recently concluded Pro Kabaddi League season, comes from what has to be the kabaddi capital of India. Sonipat wouldn't feature prominently on India's map, but when it comes to kabaddi, no other district has produced as many medal winners. If the Pro Kabaddi League is a revolution in itself, it owes a lot to this village in Haryana, which has produced many of the league's superstars.
For many sportspersons like Sushil Kumar, Yogeshwar Dutt, Seema Punia, who went on to represent India at the Olympics, sport was mainly a route to land a job and thus earn a livelihood. The situation was no different — if not worse for Kabaddi — a sport that was seriously lacking in popularity and recognition. There was little scope for players to sustain themselves by playing the sport without being in a full-time job; the passion for sports alone wasn't enough.
Ravinder Pahal, regarded as one of the most promising youngsters in kabaddi, was born in a sport-loving family in a village in Sonipat district. His elder brother was a wrestler, but Ravinder was considered too lightweight to play the sport. Ravinder excelled in circle-style kabaddi, but with that format of th sport lacking lucrative opportunities at the national level, Ravinder had to adapt to national-style kabaddi, that is typically played on a mat.
"I started playing kabaddi in 2007, but there wasn't much scope in the format I used to play. So I started training under my coach, Shripal sir, who taught me national-style kabaddi on the mat. I learnt from my seniors when I was a part of kabaddi camps at the Sports Authority of India centre in Sonipat," Pahal told Firstpost in an exclusive interview.
Pahal was then the only player from his village to play kabaddi at the national level. But after four seasons of Pro Kabaddi League, that saw Ravinder Pahal become one of the most feared defenders, that number has now risen to 20-25.
"There is a lot of craze for kabaddi in my village now. Earlier I was the only player, but now there are 20-25 players who train under my coach," Ravinder said. "But what satisfies me the most is when young lads from my village, who earlier indulged in criminal activities, now realise the potential in sport. They have been inspired by my success and have given up their wrongdoings and are focusing on playing sports. Crime was a growing problem in my hometown and I am glad that I was able to inspire youngsters to stay away from it," he added.
Narwal shares Pahal's sentiments on the issue. "During the Pro Kabaddi League season, parents often cite our examples to young kids to stop them from indulging in criminal acts.They tell them, 'These are sportsmen, see what they have achieved through their hard work.' I feel that makes a lot of difference. It's a very important change that the Pro Kabaddi League has brought in," Narwal, who is a DSP in the Haryana police, told Firstpost.
Narwal has been playing kabaddi since he was in school. He has won school, university and national level gold medals. In 2010, he helped India win a gold medal at the Asian Games, a feat that earned him a promotion to the post of DSP in Haryana Police.
However, not many knew Sonu Narwal before he appeared in the Pro Kabaddi League last year; it was the success of the tournament that took his tale beyond the limits of Sonipat.
He now spends most of his time training at the Police Sports Complex in Karnal, Haryana, and has to occasionally report for duty in case of emergencies. But he says every time he reports for police duty and steps out on the field, he is mobbed by fans. Such is the love and popularity these players have gained through the glitzy league. In fact, such is the popularity of the league back home that for one month, the entire district of Sonipat takes on a festive atmosphere.
"At my home, I have a big room, and almost 40-50 people come to watch when I play in the Pro Kabaddi League. It's a lot of fun, and everybody enjoys the matches together," Pahal said. "So many people come and praise my game, and it's a really joyous moment for my parents as well. It gives me great pleasure to see them so happy and so proud."
Narwal concurred that the league has changed the face of the sport in India. Earlier, only a select few international games were telecast on Doordarshan, but now the league is shown live on multiple channels in different languages. And this, Narwal said, has generated a huge appetite for the sport in kabaddi-fanatic Sonipat. "Back home, the craze for Pro Kabaddi League is so high, that a person can skip a meal, but not the matches," the raider divulged, summing up the enthusiasm in his hometown.
The game in Sonipat has now moved on from clay to mat, keeping in mind the room for growth in kabaddi. The SAI centre in Sonipat is further helping nurture kabaddi talent. With the Pro Kabaddi League, interest among kids is at its peak, and with so many role models, the inspiration is unparalleled. The key is to now channelise this into something productive.
Pahal and Narwal share a dressing room at Puneri Paltan and are also roommates at the hotel. The duo had a fairly successful campaign this year, helping their team finish third.
Incidentally, Pardeep Narwal of the Patna Pirates and Rajesh Narwal of the Jaipur Pink Panthers — which finished first and second respectively — are also products of the fertile Sonipat soil. Every Pro Kabaddi League season seems to bring in a new sensation from Sonipat to add to the long list of stars from the district, ensuring the legacy of the kabaddi-crazy district is intact.
With the likes of Ravinder Pahal and Sonu Narwal cleansing crime from the district through their sweat and stardom alike, Sonipat, India's kabaddi capital, is in safe hands.