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This game isn’t just for kicks, it’s a miracle

With the arrival of big game contests, will sepak takraw finally pick up in India where scarcity of funds is the norm?

Firstpost print Edition

Kh Niken Singh’s knees hurt, his back is a mess and he knows the road to recovery will be slow and expensive, but he wears his battle wounds with pride. The 34-year-old and his team have a place in sporting history — they won India its first Asian Games medal, a bronze, in sepak takraw at Jakarta in 2018.

Singh would rather be in Goa, where some big-ticket sepak takraw events are planned for later this year, than nurse his broken body but sport was never for the faint hearted.

“I am going to rest my body for a year as I am undergoing medical treatment in Imphal,” says Singh on the phone from his home in Imphal.

 This game isn’t just for kicks, it’s a miracle

India's sepak takraw athletes had won the bronze medal in the men's team regu at the 2018 Asian Games in Palembang. AFP

Who’s footing the bill? “While in the India camp, medical expenses were paid for. But after the camp, it is my own money,” the Manipur sports and youth welfare ministry employee says in a broken mix of English and Hindi.

That, in part, explains why sepak takraw has not really taken off in India—paucity of funds, facilities and no publicity.

Fairly popular in Thailand, Malaysia, Myanmar and other countries of the region, sepak takraw is new to India, where most have not even heard the name of the game.

Often referred to as kick volleyball, sepak takraw, is a southeast Asian sport. Sepak is Malay for ‘to kick’ while Takraw is Thai for a cane or rattan ball, around which the three-a-side sport revolves.

It is so elegant a game that in Myanmar, it is played as Chinlone, where there are no opposing teams and the entire effort is to keep the ball aloft without using hands — almost resembling a dance form. Chinlone is Myanmar’s favourite sport. Reports say it is almost, 1,500 years old and was once played by Burmese kings. Now it is played everywhere and is also a regular feature of Buddhist festivals.

Sepak takraw is played in a badminton-like court, with a net separating the two teams. It is played almost like volleyball but players are not allowed the use of hands and can only use their feet, knee, chest and head to touch the ball, which has to be pushed on the other side of the net. Watching the game in Manipur’s leikais (neighbourhood in Meitilon, the official language of the state), under the LED-lit night sky is quite an experience.

Manipuris, who love their sports, play sepak takraw in every locality of the Imphal Valley. Little surprise then that eight of the 12 men and six of the 12 women in the 24-member Indian sepak takraw squad that played in Jakarta were Manipuris.

“Manipuris are especially good at sepak takraw because almost everyone plays football and are naturally flexible. Sepak takraw is a game where you use your legs a lot,” says Vincent Nameirakpam, who played the game during his childhood in Manipur’s Singjamei. Proximity to Myanmar has helped popularise the game in Manipur where equipment for the game comes easily as do the cheap but powerful China-made LED bulbs for the after-dark games.

“It did not become popular in the past because except Manipur, no other state was playing it seriously. People were playing it just to pass time,” says Muhindro Singh Thokchom, a Sports Authority of India coach. Though Assam and Nagaland picked it up, it was not spreading to the other parts of the country. “But in the last few years, many south Indian states like Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh are picking it up. So I think the future is good,” says Thokchom.

He is optimistic that once Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh take to the sport, it will get popular. “These are states where tall players can come from and height is an advantage in sepak takraw,” he says. Introduced in the Asian Games in Beijing in 1990, sepak takraw is expected to figure in Olympic Games soon.

Sepak Takraw Federation of India general secretary Yogendra Singh Dahiya is sure that the game is here to stay. “It is getting popular by the day. Why I am saying the game has a good future is that it has been introduced at certain levels in schools and universities. And with good governmental support, it can become a sport where India can do very well,” he says.

“The sport will figure in the National Games in Goa after which the Sepak Takraw World Cup tournament will be held.” So, Goa may well turn out to be the veritable game-changer as far as sepak takraw in India is concerned.

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