On 14 July, when the sporting world was having a field day with cricket World Cup final, Wimbledon men's singles final and the British Grand Prix jousting for attention, hidden in a quiet corner in Patna's Patliputra Sports Complex, a bunch of girls was reclaiming their share of Goldust. After suffering heartbreak in last edition's final, the Payal Chaudhari-led Indian Railways' women's kabaddi team romped to another Nationals title, making light work of each opposition that came their way in the four-day event.
Chaudhari doesn't like noise. Her motto and message to upcoming players goes, "Just keep working hard without making much noise, your results will speak for you." And then, she adds this, almost as a firm afterthought: Haar mat maano. It translates to 'Never give up.' Nothing earth-shattering about this age-old sporting cliche, but Chaudhari says it with the earnestness of a fresh recruit. It tells you that her soft demeanour must not be taken for passivity or lack of competitive edge. And there was no dearth of competitiveness at Nationals.
Ever since its inception in 1984, women's kabaddi Nationals has seen unreal domination from Railways — they have won all but one edition, the only blip coming in 2018 at the hands of Himachal Pradesh.
Barring, to an extent, Mumbai in Ranji Trophy, such sustained monolithic domination at a single sport by a single entity is unheard of in India. In a parallel universe, they'd have earned sobriquets befitting their lofty pedigree, but then, this is how it is. Chaudhari, to her credit, is neither bitter nor bruised. If anything, she is full of praise for her employers, Railways Sports Promotion Board (RSPB), for ensuring the players get their kits, leaves, and incentives on time.
"We wanted to keep the legacy of Indian Railways going. Unfortunately, we lost the final last year, but this time, we were more determined than ever to win back the trophy," she told Firstpost.
"We practised very hard, researched on every team, and decided we will give our all. The focus was not on results as much as it was on quality." And quality it was. Railways breezed into the knockouts with a series of one-sided wins, and went on to trounce Delhi (in quarter-finals), hosts Bihar (in semi-finals), and Haryana for the title. The 48-23 scoreline in the final tells a tale of clinical execution.
"They (Haryana) are a strong team, and so we had planned well for them. Frankly, we didn't expect to beat them with that kind of margin, but it was all thanks to strategic planning," the 26-year-old said.
Chaudhari's eighth National Championships trophy sits pretty in her cabinet, secure in company of Youth Asian Games gold, Asian Games silver, Asian Championships gold medal, and South Asian Games gold. Not a bad collection for Technician 2 in the Electrical department of South Eastern Railways, even for someone who has been around for 12 years. Yet, kabaddi was not Chaudhari's first calling. At school, she ran the 100m and 200m, and was also an avid high-jumper. In fact, she won a high-jump bronze at the Junior Nationals in 2006. It so happened that she was coaxed into participation by her teachers in inter-class kabaddi match and began to like the sport.
"I was particularly fascinated by the way they went after raiders, going for the ankle or pushing them aside. The referee in that match told me that I was good, and asked me to first observe the game and then give it a shot. It worked," she said.
Like Chaudhari, winning the 2019 Nationals was coach Banani Saha's driving force over the past year. Saha is a Railways veteran — she has represented the outfit as a player for ten years — and last edition's defeat came as a rude awakening of sorts. Stung, she went about planning redemption.
"We were absolutely determined to win it this time. Our long winning streak ended last year, which spurred us to improve our performance. Our goal was to win all matches convincingly, and that is what we did," she said.
RSPB arranged four preparatory camps — two camps were held in Cuttack, one in Andhra Pradesh, and the last in Kharagpur — for 36 core probables in the run-up to the Nationals. The number was pruned to one-third by the time team landed in Patna on 10 July.
"The 12 players that we fielded in the Nationals were selected from these camps, and they were the best kabaddi players we could have got. We were very confident going into the competition. Obviously, there was some nervousness, but we were outstanding, and I am proud of the girls," says Saha.
Prem Chand Lochab, Secretary, RSPB, credits Railways' continued success in kabaddi to a robust structure and empathy for sportspersons.
"Indian Railways has a long history of commitment to sports promotion. We organise a number of camps for 29 game disciplines for our sportspersons, where every care is given towards their training and diet, etc. The sportspersons also get Special Casual Leave for fitness and attending camps. Besides, there are provisions for special cash awards for medal-winning performances, incentives and out-of-turn promotions. Also, the present government and especially the Minister of Railways are very supportive and forthright with their help. All demands raised by our sportspersons are met well on time, and in times to come, you'll see further improvement in the field of Indian Railway sports," Lochab said.
The impeccable political correctness of the officialdom apart, the RSPB must be credited for instilling a sense of security in their athletes in general, and kabaddi players in particular. It has also played a part in letting families shed their apprehensions and let girls pursue the sport.
"When departments such as Indian Railways offer you job and financial security, it becomes easy for families to agree," says Chaudhari.
"Most players in our team come from humble backgrounds, mainly farming. Many players already have a sportsperson in their family, in which case it is easier for girls to convince their folks about a career in kabaddi. They generally face resistance from families at the start of their careers, but ultimately, most come around. The world is moving on, and it is heartening to see a lot of families supporting girls to take up sports," Saha concurs.
She has one suggestion though. "I think the time is right for a women's kabaddi league. We would love to have a platform like the Pro Kabaddi League as it gives players a great platform and financial boost to players." To be sure, PKL experimented with the idea back in 2014, but lack of a sizeable pool of players meant the plan has been in abeyance.
While non-participation in PKL does rankle Chaudhari, it doesn't stop her from following the league. "I wish we had a platform like that, but until that happens, I'll pick up tricks and moves by observing players on the TV."
"Just keep working hard without letting anyone know. Haar mat maano," she repeats.
Updated Date: Jul 23, 2019 19:28:39 IST