To lift kabaddi out of India's rural pockets and reproduce it as a sports entertainment product for the urban populace, the initiators Mashal Sports had to make a leap of faith. Although the sport scored highly on recognition, there was no recall. Kabaddi was mostly a recreational activity in rural areas or an exercise to keep oneself fit enough in order to be able to join the police force or army or a way to land a job in government portals that would safeguard one's family financially.
The sport was seen more as a means rather than the end. But with Pro Kabaddi, all that changed and changed rather rapidly. Four season on and few hours away from a fifth that not just promises to be bigger and better, but actually is with four new teams participating, kabaddi prepares for its next leap.
But if anything's changed faster than the sport, its the lives of its players. Those who joined Pro Kabaddi with a hope to gain monetarily and acquire a bit of fame, have seen their aspirations grow rapidly. Starting from the lower end of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs pyramid, some of them are now looking to topple it. The need for safety and security was met in the very first season, love and fame was achieved in the second and come the third and fourth these players were esteemed stars. In the fifth they will look to leave nothing to desire of.
Have a word with them and you will realise their appetite is no longer limited to merely participating in the competition. They long for glory, goals that bring personal pride and achievements that will make society worhsip them.
Thus the new campaign is a season of aspirations and opportunities for kabaddi and its practitioners, albeit of varying degrees, but of desires that are a lot more than mere survival.
The entry of Haryana Steelers means a bit more than just having a new team. It takes kabaddi to its bastion for the first time in its new avatar. For a state that accounted for most of the league's raw material in terms of players, coaches since the start, its only fitting that they get a taste of the finished product.
"Haryana will see the biggest crowds in Pro Kabaddi so far. There are so many players from Haryana playing in the league, but their families haven't always got the chance to watch them play. I believe all the relatives and friends of the players will be present in the stadium and they will get to see what their son or brother or friend has achieved. It will be a special moment," Manjeet Chhillar who's one of the biggest stars from the state told Firstpost rejoicing the fact that apart from his fans, everyone from his parents to his two young nephews will be cheering him from the stands.
The leg in Sonepat will be a chance for the state to have one big party to celebrate its contribution to the game.
A bit further south, the formation of Gujarat Fortunegiants is seen as catalyst for the sport spreading its wings to a new state fairly untouched by it. For the newcomers Fortunegiants, winning over the locals with their game will be as important as holding the trophy aloft come October
"So far there hasn't been a kabaddi team from Gujarat. The state hasn't even produced many players. So for us this an opportunity to popularise the game in a new state, to make Gujarat a strong kabaddi state in the future because I am sure there is talent here. But to do that we will have to perform very well," Sukesh Hegde, captain of the Gujarat outfit said.
On a personal note, there won't be a better chance for Hegde though to be a cult hero, something he couldn't achieve in his four years at Telugu Titans where the best he could do is play second fiddle to Rahul Chaudhari. His flamboyance and aggression was difficult to look beyond and Hegde who so often bailed the Titans out of tricky situations wasn't as lauded as his glamorous team-mate.
For a state that begins its journey with a clean slate, Hegde will look be Gujarat's equivalent of Rahul Chaudhari.
"This is a big opportunity for me. I was happy to be named captain of the side. Here I can show the world what I'm capable of. There will be a bit more focus on me and it will allow me to build a big image for myself," Hegde stated.
Leader of the tournament's youngest pack, Hegde has an opportunity to even make a mark as a top captain. Having players like Sachin , who's the captain of the junior Indian kabaddi team in the side, helping them realise their potential at the highest level in sport will be big part of his role.
The decision to expand to 12 teams has given more such players a chance to shine. Zonal gold medalists, award winners at national championships, and youngsters making a mark at international level earlier had to prove themselves continuously to get rewarded by being picked by a Pro Kabaddi side. There was no guarantee though of the player making it to the mat as the season folded up in a month and a bit.
With three months of actions, teams have realised the need for squad depth and the younger players will be more in the thick of the things. In fact keeping in mind the physical needs of three-month long season, teams like Dabang Delhi, Tamil Thalaivas, Fortunegiants and Bengal Warriors have opted to pack teams with youngsters.
It only means that quite a few new stars will be on the horizon this season. An scenario that the league authorities would love to see.
While the youngsters would be looking to carve out a place for them in the kabaddi world, some seniors have unfinished business. Manjeet who's also the vice-captain of the Indian team and perceived by many as the best all-rounder in the game, has won several accolades in his career. Yet, the Pro Kabaddi winners medal continues to evade him.
Although illustrious, Manjeet's journey in the competition has had its fair share of agony. Having reached three semi-finals and a final, to end up on the losing side every time is a blot that the all-rounder would want to do away with.
Featuring in a Jaipur Pink Panthers' side that lost a final in the previous edition, and has been at the receiving end since winning the inaugural edition, they match Manjeet in terms of their hurt. The man from Nizampur believes this will be his season. Donning the number 5 jersey, he wishes season 5 will bring him luck.
— ProKabaddi (@ProKabaddi) July 27, 2017
It's hard to be in oblivion after being reverred for a long time. But sport, and more so life can be cruel at times. Wazir Singh and Maninder Singh were two names that struck fear in the minds of defenders in the first season. Although their teams had contrasting fortunes, both managed to score over 100 raid points.
They were the stars that were about to get brighter, but fate had other ideas. Injuries dimmed Wazir's aura, while personal problems sidelined Maninder altogether. By season 4, they were kabaddi's forgotten men, but the new season offered them a route to redemption.
Wazir was picked by home side Haryana Steelers, and Maninder found a new home in the Bengal Warriors. With both sides needing more than one raider to fire, destiny might be a scripting a fine fairytale for them.
"Wazir has been a top player. I think he will be even more motivated after missing out on the last two seasons, and perhaps not many teams would pay a lot of attention to him. So he is going to be a trump card for us," Mohit Chhillar, one of Steelers' top defenders said.
So as the clock ticks towards a revamped and reworked Pro Kabaddi season, there is a reason to dream bigger, aspire higher and play even better. As a season of greater opportunity awaits, the stakes have never been higher before.
Updated Date: Jul 28, 2017 11:04 AM