On a rainy evening three years ago, the swish cars of Sachin Tendulkar, Aamir Khan and Amitabh Bachchan pulled in to the drive-way at the NSCI Indoor Stadium in South Mumbai. Inside the air-conditioned space, Aishwarya Rai, definitely wearing a pink, collared t-shirt in public for the first time looked for her front-row seat, Ronnie Screwvala, known until then only as a film producer czar, addressed his team huddle and an anxious Charu Sharma pranced about in a suit. Pro Kabaddi League’s inaugural season commenced.
That opening game between home team, Screwvala’s U Mumba and Abhishek Bachchan’s Jaipur Pink Panthers, was largely about star power, the cameras sharing elaborate reactions of the A-list celebrities, and even after the home leg, their face hunting continued. But somewhere in between, hitherto obscure athletes began finding their moments under the gleaming lights. Captain of the Bengaluru Bulls, Manjeet Chhillar, commanded respect with his calculated blocks on the mat that brought mighty raiders down.
There were more than a few Chhillars – a baby-faced Mohit particularly began making the right corner position his own. The lanky Mumbai captain Anup Kumar, dressed in a jersey with one of Screwvala’s in-house brands as sponsor, shined too, as the season progressed and he began clinching games not only through hand-touches or dubkis, but through shrewd management of the clock. Kumar, who later went on to become the most celebrated star of the League, admitted to me once that in those first few games, he did not quite know what to expect on this glitzy turf under lights with thousands watching. Kumar, like most PKL debutants, had trained rigorously but nothing prepared him for the sudden burst of fame.
On television, the game seemed entirely different and a tad more thrilling, thanks to the packaging of the League’s broadcaster doubling up as the title sponsor. The commentators, who too had lent their voices to kabaddi games restricted to national and regional tournaments, lapped up the breathlessness of the sport. At every opportunity of air-time, they decoded terms starting from super raids, super-tackles and moving on to dubkis, chains and thigh-fives. There were segments on the channel and online, explaining the rules of this game, ironically one of India’s oldest.
Jaipur Pink Panthers, led by Navneet Gautam, Arjuna award winner and two-time Asian Games gold winner, struck a golden streak after the opening night’s loss. They won seven games in a row and virtually sealed a semi-final berth, their stubbled owner’s animated reactions already being a talking point among viewers. Gautam the defender was ably supported by his state team and India team colleague Jasvir Singh, whose calm demeanour in a power-packed game stood out.
A sudden, 22-point loss to Patna Pirates was followed by a tie with U Mumba and another loss by a single point to Bengaluru, but as the Panthers beat most other sides twice, they went through to the semis with new rivals U Mumba, Pirates and Bengaluru Bulls. The four were easily the better teams, with Telugu Titans not quite there, Dabang Delhi inconsistent, Bengal Warriors still looking for a balanced side and Puneri Paltan the minnows. One might well argue that this is still the case, save for one team here and there.
India wasn’t quite used to this ‘caravan-style’ tournament but with each city’s leg providing a local dose of glamour, the format was lapped up and city-wise rivalries grew. It seemed fine to fans that Haryanvi and Tamilian athletes were dominating all sides, after all this was an Indian audience that had accepted Pollard as a Mumbaikar and Ricky Ponting as a Bengali.
That said, the show had to return to Mumbai for a final dose of famous faces, and although there was a sufficient deal of that, kabaddi stars such as Anup Kumar, Shabeer Bapu, Jasvir Singh, Sandeep Narwal and Wazir Singh came on to their own.
Jaipur avenged their loss to Patna in the semi-finals, U Mumba too beat Bulls, leading to a final that was a re-match of the opening night. This time, the game was closer, but U Mumba kept chasing their rivals, who looked in better knick on the big day, which was clearly a matter of nerves. After trailing 14-18, the home team had a worse second half and lost the final 24-35.
This League, that year was just over a month long. Today it is thrice that duration and has four more teams.
Updated Date: Jul 18, 2017 14:10 PM