Shashank Wankhede thought his professional kabaddi career was over when he did not make the cut for the sixth season of the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL) last year. Having played for three different franchises since his debut in 2015, Wankhede had not quite been able to crack the PKL. He had played only five matches across those three seasons.
Then, sometime last year, he heard about trials being conducted for a new kabaddi league being launched by a rival body to the recognised Amateur Kabaddi Federation of India (AKFI), under whose aegis the PKL runs.
Wankhede knew that if he was picked for the new league, it would be curtains for his PKL career. But at 36, he wasn’t getting any younger, so he decided to take a chance. Today, he is the captain of Mumbai Che Raje, one of the eight franchises of the Indo International Premier Kabaddi League (IIPKL).
Launched on May 13, the IIPKL has given a second wind to the careers of a handful of PKL discards. “I’ve got a second chance, somewhat, and I’m keen to make the most of it,” says Wankhede.
The IIPKL has also given a platform to hundreds of kabaddi players across the country who had never got the opportunity to play in PKL. “You need to be under 21 years to even be considered for PKL trials,” said Diljeet Singh Chauhan, 27, a raider for Mumbai Che Raje. “For those who did not make the cut, there was no other place to go.”
The IIPKL trials, conducted in 16 cities across India, did not have any age restriction. “Anybody who had played kabaddi at the university or district level could register,” said Ravi Kiran, the IIPKL’s director. “We had almost 5,000 registrations at the trials and picked the best 160.”
Kiran added that a transparent selection process was priority for the IIPKL. “Almost all our trials were recorded on video and viewed by a panel of selectors, which included people who have played kabaddi for India at the national and international level.”
The above statement could be construed as a dig at the AKFI, which has been mired in controversies recently. Last year, a bunch of former India players led by Mahipal Singh took it to court, alleging that the federation has not conducted transparent elections since 1984 and that it runs a fake participation certificate scam which interferes with team selection.
The Delhi High Court last year declared the presidency of AKFI invalid and appointed an administrator to look into its affairs. The court asked all the state kabaddi associations under AKFI to amend their Constitution and implement the National Sports Development Code of India. Once this was done, the court asked the administrator to conduct that a fresh round of elections in the state bodies and the AKFI. They are scheduled to take place later this year.
While this was happening, the former players who took the AKFI to court also helped set up a new kabaddi federation called, literally, the New Kabaddi Federation. The NKF has not yet been recognised by the Indian government but is trying to show that it is the corruption-free governing body the sport needs. The IIPKL is the NKF’s brainchild, although it seems to be largely modelled on the PKL.
Operating multiple leagues in one sport has not gone down too well in India in the recent past (remember the Indian Cricket League?). However, at least until the fresh round of AKFI elections are held, it appears India will have two kabaddi leagues running under different governing bodies.
The AKFI has stated that it has no problem with the IIPKL but participating players will not be considered for selection into the Indian team. The NKFI is not worried about this.
“Right now, the AKFI is as good as dissolved,” said Ravi Kiran. “Once they conduct fresh elections, two things can happen: One, the federation is dissolved and the new federation is asked to take over. Or, the corrupt members of that federation will be replaced, and the NKFI will merge with the AKFI.”
What this would mean for the future of the PKL, the IIPKL, and their respective players and stakeholders is unknown. But if first impressions are anything to go by, the IIPKL appears to have been put in place just to show that the new federation can also conduct a league.
The NKF and its broadcasters – DSport and MTV – have failed to generate much buzz around it. While the launch of the PKL five years ago was a star-studded affair, with the likes of Sachin Tendulkar, Amitabh Bachchan and Aamir Khan in attendance, the IIPKL organisers did not even manage to get their own brand ambassador – Virender Sehwag – to attend the opening ceremony which was a rather tepid affair headlined by B-list actors and singers.
The match atmosphere and the presentation of the matches on television also pales in comparison to the PKL. However, Wankhede is optimistic. “As the seasons progress, I’m sure the league will get better,” he said. For now, he is focused on grabbing this opportunity with both hands.
Jaideep Vaidya is a freelance sports journalist
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