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Twinkle twinkle kabaddi stars

meet the bengal warriors

Shyam Kumar Sah’s new smartphone hasn’t stopped ringing and beeping over the past three days.

When the kabaddi player from Chandernagore installed WhatsApp on his phone a week ago, he had barely five names to connect with. Since Wednesday, when the Bengal Warriors played their first home match at the Netaji Indoor Stadium, he has added 95 more. Most of them are strangers.

Shyam, 30, can’t believe that people he doesn’t know are going out of their way to get his phone number and ping him on WhatsApp.

“I have been getting hundreds of messages, many of them from people who say they have seen me on television. After 14 years of playing kabaddi, I suddenly feel like a star. It’s as if I am Virat Kohli playing in the IPL!” says Shyam in between fiddling with his phone.

After years of playing on muddy, nondescript grounds and in tournaments few cared about, players like Shyam are finally enjoying a semblance of fame because of the Pro Kabaddi League that borrows its glitz from the cash-rich IPL. Almost everyone admits that the experience has been beyond expectations and far removed from the struggles of playing a rustic sport whose potential the market evangelists took long to discover.

From staying in star hotels to playing on rubber mats in air-conditioned arenas with disco lights, DJ music and showbiz shimmer, the players of Pro Kabaddi don’t want to wake up from the dream.

The best part of it, of course, has been the adulation of a primetime audience sold on the concept of kabaddi under lights, just as people were when Kerry Packer introduced pajama cricket.

“More than the money, it is the recognition that has touched all of us. We play as hard as the cricketers but have lived in anonymity all along. Now, when an old acquaintance calls up and says he watched me play and is proud of me, it really motivates me,” says Nilesh Shinde, who hails from Thane near Mumbai and captains the Bengal Warriors, partnered by The Telegraph.

Nilesh has been playing kabaddi since school and his district alone has 450 kabaddi clubs and associations. But the players have never had any illusions about it being anything other than “a poor man’s sport”. Pro Kabaddi promises to change that.

Before the league started, even veterans like Shyam and Nilesh never had the services of a team physiotherapist, a fitness instructor and a dietician. Not only that, the event seems to have turned kabaddi into an international sport.

“Just as in the IPL, Pro Kabaddi has brought players from countries such as Iran, South Korea and Thailand. Their presence has helped us raise our game and learn a trick or two. This league is helping us grow as athletes,” says Nitin Madane, a raider for the Bengal Warriors who hails from Sangli in Maharashtra.

Parveen Kumar of Haryana, who plays as a defender for the home franchise, has become a celebrity back home within a week of playing in the Pro Kabaddi League. “My family members and neighbours call me up to say that people in my hometown Panipat are in front of the television by 8pm. I couldn’t have imagined this before the league started,” he says.

Parveen hopes this is “just the beginning of better things” for the sport and its practitioners.

Some of the players have already made plans to buy new cars or holiday abroad. The financial freedom that the league has brought with it has also decreased their dependence on sports-quota jobs for a livelihood.

Victory in a state-level tournament fetches a player employed by a company or government entity around Rs 10,000. For the Pro Kabaddi League, the star players fetched up to Rs 12 lakh in an IPL-style auction prior to the tournament. Most were hired for Rs 2-10 lakh each.

“We hardly earn anything from playing kabaddi for our state or company. If we win a tournament, the company keeps 30 per cent of the prize and the rest is divided among the players and coaches,” reveals Shyam, an Eastern Railway employee.

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