Hosts India start the 2016 Kabaddi World Cup as the favourites. But of the 12 teams in attendance, there are a few that could set the stage alight. Here are the top teams to watch out for:
As if the expectations were not high enough, with the Pro Kabaddi marketing era of the sport, India has been labelled the ‘Dream Team’. The name evokes memories of the US basketball team of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, which was considered by the American media as the ‘greatest sports team’ ever assembled.
This might not quite be the Olympics. But India, like the US basketball team, enter the tournament as overwhelming favourites. They are yet to lose a major competition: they have won the two previous editions of the World Cup — in 2004 and 2007 — and have seven Asian gold medals to their name.
While India has always dominated the ancient sport, PKL has given kabaddi a much bigger stage, turned it into a mainstream sport and its players into superstars. The experienced Anup Kumar will lead the star-studded squad of 14. An experienced player, the 33-year-old is also a great leader of men. In terms of tactics, he misses little that happens in the field of play and has a calming influence on the team. Rahul Chaudhuri and Pardeep Narwal will spear the Indian attack while Bengaluru Bulls duo of Mohit Chillar and Surender Nada are likely to be the pillars of strength in defence. With India playing on their home soil, they have more than just a title to defend.
If there is one team that has steadily made ground on the international stage in kabaddi, it is Iran. Since their first foray into the Asian Games in 2006, where they finished fourth, the west Asian nation has improved with every outing. In the 2010 Games in Guangzhou they finished runners-up, with India winning with a comfortable 37-20 margin. In 2014, in Incheon, they gave India a scare, taking an eight-point lead at half-time going down 25-27 in the final. Iran has made the finals of the last two editions of the World Cup as well, losing 27-55 in 2004, and 19-29 in 2007.
Their players have been impressive in the four seasons of the Pro Kabaddi League as well. Defender Hadi Oshtorak was the most expensive player of the second season, with Telugu Titans spending Rs 21.1 lakh on him. Hadi and Fazel Atrachali, who has played for U Mumba and Patna Pirates in PKL, will form the spine of the defence for Iran. Atrachali was the top defender in season 4, as he had the most successful tackle percentage- 62.5. The ace up their sleeve, meanwhile, is captain and all-rounder Meraj Sheykh. He is fearless while raiding and solid in defence.
Though Kabaddi is the national sport of Bangladesh, it has lost out to more popular games like cricket and football in the country. The team has won three silver and two bronze medals at the Asian Games, and stood third in the last two World Cups as well. The shared culture with India means kabaddi has deep enough roots in the country itself. A variation of the game, called Ha-du-du, is more popular in Bangladesh, but kabaddi was instutionalised in the country in 1973, when they formed the Amateur Kabaddi Federation of Bangladesh.
In the opening edition of the PKL, U Mumba squad consisted of three Bangladeshi players: Mohammed Aruduzzaman Munshi, Mohammed Zakir Hossain and Mohammed Tuhin Tarefder (all raiders). They did not, however, make a deep impact. But their understanding of the game, the strategies, is likely to tide them over some of the inexperienced teams.
After Iran, South Korea has risen through the ranks of kabaddi the fastest. The country, which is fast becoming a sporting superpower, has taken to kabaddi as an extension of their martial art: taekwondo.
They have in place a sports infrastructure, and have introduced kabaddi as a university sport. Korea’s advent into the game reaped rewards when they won the bronze medal, along with Pakistan, at the 2016 Asian Games in Incheon.
Jang-Kun Lee, the hugely popular raider in Pro Kabaddi, will bear the burden of the team’s ambitions during the World Cup. Having played Pro Kabaddi for four seasons, he has seen the best in action first hand and knows the nuances of the game. Lee’s fellow Koreans Eom Tae-deok, Kim Seong-ryeol and Hong Dong-ju have all played in the Indian professional League and will be better for the experience.
Owing to the massive Indian expat population, mainly from the state of Punjab, kabaddi has a foothold in England. Though their organised set up, which saw England host the 2013 Kabaddi Cup, is more geared towards the circular style of kabaddi, they are one of the better non-Asian teams. They have also played the last two World Cups, as United Kingdom. With youngsters in England already having a base rugby and football, it has been easier for them to adapt to kabaddi and its brutality. There are currently six kabaddi clubs in the country.
Famously, YouTube was kabaddi’s messenger to the country. Kenya is traditionally known for long-distance runners but the inherent athletic talent found in the country has brought a new flavour to world kabaddi. Their most famous export is Simon Kibura, who plays for the Pune franchise in Pro Kabaddi. He has also now started coaching in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi.
Since the formation of the Kenyan Kabaddi Federation in 2014, the game has been taken to schools and colleges, in the hope to scout young talent. Laventer Ogunta, one of KKF’s founders, was introduced to the game and its rules via YouTube. Their players are strong, powerful and quick, and with a little guidance, it could be the team for the future.