Rakesh Kumar couldn’t remain seated; Anup Kumar preferred to walk.
And so began the journeys of the two as coaches. Throughout their playing careers, Rakesh and Anup had leaned on each other, designing strategies, defeating rivals and achieving the biggest highs in the sport. Both Asian Games gold medallists, both World Cup winners, they have been the defining figures of Indian kabaddi in the past decade and a half.
Though as different as fire and ice—Rakesh is considered the hottest talent the country has produced, while Anup is acknowledged as the coolest mind -- there has been a certain symmetry to their success, especially in the Indian jersey. And so it wasn’t surprising that the two started their coaching career together, against each other.
“I kept jumping out of my seat to give the players instructions,” says Rakesh of his coaching debut on 22 July when his team Haryana Steelers defeated Anup’s Puneri Paltan 34-24 in the seventh season of the Pro Kabaddi League. “I was warned by the assistant scorer. And I told her I am sorry, but it’s my first time and I’m too excited. Mujhse baitha nahi ja r aha tha (I couldn’t just sit in the dugout). There were so many times that I wanted to go onto the mat myself and get the job done.”
Anup, younger by a year and less belligerent of the two, wasn’t too keen on wasting any nervous energy, or any energy for that matter.
“Star Sports (host broadcaster) people had told me I could enter the mat any way I wanted to,” says the 36-year-old Anup, one of finest raiders, about his first steps on the kabaddi mat as a coach. “Either walk onto the field or run with the players. But I didn’t want to run. Bohot bhaag liye, ab aram karna hai (I have ran a lot in my playing days, now I want to rest).”
The start, though, has been anything but restful for Anup. Not only has he seen his team succumb to three defeats in the first three matches – ironically because of lack of raiding talent—but is also still getting used to the many responsibilities a coach has to carry out.
“It is very time-consuming,” he says. “As a player, you can focus on your game and strategies. Here I have to look after so many players, their training and diet, talk to each of them about their game, analyse other teams. If a player spends six hours a day on his kabaddi, a coach has to spend 12.”
It wasn’t too long ago that Anup and Rakesh were players themselves. While Anup bowed out of the sport mid-way through last PKL season, Rakesh hasn’t officially announced his retirement yet. After a successful stint with U Mumba under Anup, Rakesh has been sidelined with niggling injuries the past three seasons and took on the role of a commentator during PKL 6.
“It was a difficult decision,” says Rakesh, who was the captain when India won gold at the 2010 and 2014 Asian Games. “For me, it was very difficult to stop playing, to let go what I had done my whole life. I didn’t want to leave, especially since I haven’t suffered from any major injury yet in a sport like this. I did commentary last season to stay close to the game, but I didn’t enjoy it that much.”
Soon enough though, both the players were offered coaching jobs by various teams. They reached out to each other and talked about the new possibilities.
“We did speak to each other before taking up on the coaching offers,” says Anup. “Even today I had a long phone conversation with Rakesh, about our loss yesterday (23-33 against U Mumba in Mumbai) and his upcoming match. Over the years, during matches and national camps, we have relied on each other’s experience. We have spotted opponents’ mistakes, if he hasn’t I have and vice versa, and helped each other out.”
Brothers in arms on the kabaddi mat, Anup and Rakesh are the first to have transitioned from star players to super coaches in Pro Kabaddi. There is, of course, Manpreet Singh who led three-time champions Patna Pirates to their first title in season 3 and has guided Gujarat Fortunegiants to two successive finals as a coach since the team was formed in 2017. But Manpreet didn’t quite have the same aura as Anup or Rakesh as a player and was brought out of retirement by Patna more for his tactical nous.
Rakesh, meanwhile, was the biggest name and earned the highest bid (Rs 12.8 lakh) when Pro Kabaddi kicked off in 2014, while Anup, the charismatic captain of U Mumba and ‘Bonus ka Badshah’ was named the Most Valuable Player in the first season.
Their undisputed credentials have gone a long way in gaining the respect of their players, even though they are newbies as coaches.
“I don’t know the younger players very well, but they know who I am, what I have achieved, that I have treated everyone with respect throughout my career,” says Anup. “None of the players in the team, not even the seniors, ever back answer or question me. They respect me and my experience.”
Passing on their experience, Rakesh believes, is one of the reasons why he enjoys coaching.
“I don’t mind if the players treat me like their friend or elder brother,” he says. “But for those 5-6 hours in the day, when they are in training, I need complete focus and discipline. This is what we learnt, and the reason why we had such long careers. I don’t like to force but I tell them it’s for their own good. I don’t want them to miss the golden chance of performing on a platform like this. Whatever attitude you have, show it on the court. We have seen so many players disappear after 1-2 successful seasons because they get complacent. I don’t want any of the younger players to suffer that fate.”
Having played kabaddi for more than a decade, both Anup and Rakesh know how fickle a victory or defeat can be. While they are willing to tell their players not to let results shape them, and rather focus on the effort, they carry their own burden of expectations.
“The team does expect from me that’s why they have brought me as a coach,” says the more-pragmatic Anup. Meanwhile, Rakesh is not shy about spelling out his ambitions: “There are 12 teams in this League. All 12 teams are aiming for the trophy. Champion to hume bhi ban na hai. (Like others, even we want to be champions).”
Together, on a kabaddi mat, they have plotted many a coup against rivals. Now, off the mat, they are keen to chart a new course for themselves.
Updated Date: Jul 30, 2019 09:34:56 IST