World Cups are premier tournaments, pitting the best talents against each other.
However, given that only a few countries in the world take the game of kabaddi seriously, the ongoing Kabaddi World Cup has turned more into an experiment. Rather than having only the top kabaddi nations participate in the tournament, the International Kabaddi Federation (IKF) has tried to bring in a global flavour by inviting teams from different continents.
Star Sports made kabaddi mainstream with the introduction of the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL) in 2014. The tournament is a well-thought-out, made-for-television product. And they have used the same lights, camera, action formula for the World Cup as well. It is a glitzy production, where popular songs blare through the speakers and the fans are cued by a host in the stadium. But the competition leaves a lot to be desired.
The 2016 edition of the PKL looked more of a brand extension exercise, and with the league mainly made up of domestic talent - and there is plenty of it - it is a far more competitive tournament than the World Cup.
The fact is, this is now the third World Cup of kabaddi. The first two editions, in 2004 and 2007, were four-day affairs, held without much fanfare. Lack of funds compelled a nine-year lull.
India and Iran, who met in the final of the two earlier editions of the World Cup, were the strongest contenders even then. Just that there wasn’t any television or manufactured frenzy to make a show of the glaring imbalance between the 12 teams.
Apart from India and Iran, South Korea is the only team with an organised set up. And they showed how far they have come, by scoring a shock 34-32 win over India in the curtain-raiser.
Japan and Bangladesh have a kabaddi base, but are struggling to keep the interest up. On the other end of the spectrum are countries like the US and Australia who have come to the World Cup with only a few weeks of preparation. Their inexperience has been brutally exposed.
While the US lost 15-52 to Iran, in a match that would have had heavy political undercurrents in any other sport, India ripped through Australia with a 54-20 victory. Australia, a team that had been formed hastily in three weeks, were up against Indian stalwarts in their very first competitive kabaddi match. The US arrived in India a day before the start of the World Cup, and despite having no prior experience, went into the tournament. They might be a fit, exuberant bunch but everything, right from their upright stance to their grasp of rules, suggests a complete lack of preparation.
“Yes, not all the teams here are competitive,” says India captain Anup Kumar. “But the World Cup might be a first step towards making the game global. A lot of these teams have players that have the physicality to play the game. After this it depends on how long they stick with it and learn the skills and technique.”
The IKF has for some time, in a bid to expand the game’s base, sent out Indian coaches to foreign lands. The lack of funds, till now, has meant that their efforts have not been concerted. But Kumar believes that the coaches should be given at least six-month stints to make actual improvements in the set up of the game in their respective countries.
Kabaddi’s hope lies in teams like Poland, Kenya and Argentina, who don’t yet have the maturity, but have shown plenty of enthusiasm. Poland and Kenya have their own kabaddi federations, and efforts are on to funnel talents from other sports to kabaddi and increase the base of players.
Kenya, for example, has about 100 kabaddi players who come together and practise at the Kasarani Stadium, in Nairobi, every Sunday. Laventa Oguta, the president of the Kenya Kabaddi Association, is herself a professional rugby player but her love for kabaddi has seen her trying to scout and coach talent in the country. But with the game still in infancy in the African country, they desperately lack resources.
“We have one kabaddi mat where all the 100 players, men and women, practise,” she says. “But even that one is just 100 pieces, the full kabaddi mats are about 100 pieces.” Apart from the fact that Kenya reaching the semi-final will provide an impetus to the game in that country, Oguta is hopeful they make the playoffs so that she gets enough funds to ship the two mats, which the IKF has given them, home.
The Polish players have impressed with their strength. But kabaddi is more than squaring shoulders and flexing biceps, and they are learning it the hard way.
“But at least now police is not called when we train,” says Poland Kabaddi Federation’s general-secretary Michal Sosin. “We still don’t have a training centre. So the players usually practise in public parks. When we had started, in 2014, a couple of times people in the city patrol police came to the scene because people thought we were having a fight.”
There is some romance in their stories of struggle. And the IKF has been pulled in too many directions to make a real difference already. But a World Cup is too lofty a stage to have a dummy run.