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Kabaddi (k)nights

Three first-timers share their experience of watching kabaddi and cheering for the Bengal Warriors, partnered by The Telegraph, at the Calcutta leg of Pro Kabaddi League at Netaji Indoor Stadium

Spirit the winner

Till Wednesday, my association with kabaddi began and ended with Shah Rukh Khan. I refer to Pardes, where SRK had to beat a village team in kabaddi to win made-in-India Ganga’s hand for his NRI bro. That time a woman’s honour was at stake. This time it was my city’s honour.

On Wednesday, Calcutta hosted the first home match for Bengal Warriors in the ongoing Pro Kaddadi League (PKL) and I was worried. Worried not whether our team Bengal Warriors, owned by Future Group and partnered by The Telegraph, would win — which they spectacularly didn’t — but whether this IPL and football-crazy city would warm to another game, that too before a national audience on STAR Sports.

It turned out, I needn’t have worried at all. I reached Netaji Indoor Stadium an hour before Bengal Warriors was to take on Bengaluru Bulls and stepped into what can only be termed a very, very large discotheque. Strobe lights were doing their psychedelic thing, a DJ was playing everything from Lungi dance to Mon mane na and there were SO many people! The atmosphere was electric, reminding me of the music, masti and madness of a KKR match at the Eden Gardens next door. There was one big difference, though — air-conditioned comfort! Can’t we watch IPL here too, I wondered.

I sat down and was handed a little blue flag with the Bengal Warriors logo by one of the attendants. Other spectators gleefully grabbed large Pro Kabaddi orange flags and inflatable cheer props.

I was mighty pleased to see Tollywood heart-throb Abir Chatterjee wearing the Bengal jersey and even more pleased to learn that like me, he too didn’t get picked by any kabaddi team when he was a kid.

Eden fixture Usha Uthup was there too and I was piqued to note that she wore KKR colours — purple and gold, as well as blue for the Bengal Warriors. She sang Shaan se and we cheered, shaan se.

I thoroughly enjoyed the flames and fireworks entry by the two teams. I now think all teams should make a similar entry. All this was fine, but I still had to learn a little about the game to enjoy it fully. Again my city came to my rescue. The crowd was extremely knowledgeable about the game and from their cheers, groans and loud suggestions of pakad le, pakad le or chole aye, choye aye, I picked up the essentials of the game.

One of the first things that struck me was how each player holds a teammate’s hand during a raid by an opponent. I know it’s strategy and all that but I was tickled to see grown men hold hands like li’l girls in a park. But just 10 minutes into the game I wasn’t laughing anymore, silenced by the scary tackles and brute force on display. Kabaddi is a team sport in the truest sense, requiring trust, group effort and oodles of guts, especially when you face the prospect of seven players climbing on top of you.

On Wednesday, the city team didn’t win, but the city won big!

Abhishek Bachchan does the thigh five as Usha Uthup plays a sporting supporter

Dada of all games

Cricket, football, tennis, badminton and now kabaddi! What next?! Did Abhishek Bachchan get nothing better to sink his sports-loving businessman teeth into other than kabaddi? I mean, who watches kabaddi?! That’s what my reaction was when Pro Kabaddi surfaced on sports pages. Since the evening of July 26 I have been eating my words. Yes, I had paused on STAR Sports to catch Amitabh Bachchan go kabaddi, kabaddi and Aamir Khan and Shah Rukh Khan in that rare Bollywood frame, but pause I did for the next hour as Abhishek Bachchan’s Jaipur Pink Panthers took on U Mumba. I was glued to kabaddi and not my favourite TV show.

The action is gripping. And, that really works. If football is fast-paced, this is jet-pace. Pro Kabaddi is 40 minutes of raw, unadulterated adrenaline rush. Successful raids and defence come in quick succession. It is a lot like cheering for a six or a wicket every ball or a goal a second.

When Bengal Warriors took on Dabang Delhi to open their winning account in the tourney on Thursday evening and coach Raj Narain Sharma was lifted by Nilesh Shinde and his boys, so pumped up was the mood that the drubbing that Dhoni and his men got in Southampton just hours ago, was forgotten by cricket-crazy Calcutta. “Hip, hip, hurray”, “three cheers for Bengal”, “jeetega bhai jeetega Bengal jeetega” was the chant. As for me, I was cheering for a Bengal brand after a long time. And, I haven’t done that since Sourav Ganguly hung up his boots.

Pro Kabaddi action is so riveting that it almost makes up for the lack of star shower. Those who flock to watch King Khan swinging from the Eden B1 box, blowing his trademark kisses during KKR matches, might be disappointed if you have a star-spangled Netaji Indoor gallery on your list of expectations. That is till the action unfolds. Yes, nothing, absolutely nothing can match Eden, its magic, its Mexican wave, but as a first-timer at a Pro Kabaddi game at Netaji Indoor Stadium, I was all but overwhelmed by the overall package. Yes, there were empty seats but those who were in the gallery had enough lung power to outclass an Eden block. And, three cheers for the Calcutta fan! Cricket, football, kabaddi, our team, rival team — we really cheer! The purple may have been replaced by blue and “four” by “out” but the Calcutta fan has no competition.

Considering this is just the debut of Pro Kabaddi and if evening shows the day, it’s picture abhi baaki hai. So, thigh five Pro Kabaddi!

The winning hurdle after Bengal Warriors beat Dabang Delhi on Day 2 Jang Kun Lee of Bengal Warriors has emerged a favourite. Pictures by Pabitra Das and Amit Datta

Heart beats for thigh fives

In the first few minutes of my first Pro Kabaddi match on Friday, I was transported to an evening 30 years ago when I had gone to watch my first Hollywood movie. The accent tripped me and in every scene, I kept asking: “Is he the good guy or the bad guy?”, prompting my uncle to take me home at the interval.

Yes, I never played kabaddi growing up, nor its Bengali version hadudu. But when they have an ekka dokka league, watch this space for my expert column.

And it did not help that Telugu Titans and Patna Pirates were both in identical canary yellow, save a splash of green on the chest for the Pirates. It did not help that I could not find a scoreboard. It did not help that the pace of action was superfast. As a result, the gentleman next to me was soon playing the role my uncle had done, but with a lot more patience. “That hunky player, is he from abroad?” I wondered aloud. “Err… that’s Rakesh Kumar, India’s captain,” he explained. Humble pie No. 1.

The flag-waving crowd and the fireworks made for a spectacular show

By then, I had realised the only scoreboard was the giant TV screen. “Have they got it wrong? Why is it showing Patna vs Vizag?” I figured that one out as soon as the words escaped my mouth. Yes, the home of Telugu Titans is Visakhapatnam. But my reputation had suffered another public blow. Humble pie No. 2.

A child behind me was rather taken with the countdown given to the raiders: 10 kabaddi, 9 kabaddi, 8 kabaddi…. “10 chapati, 9 chapati…” she repeated, in full earnest. It was a consolation that someone was understanding even less.

But the cloud started clearing as I focused. Soon I was asking more intelligent (read less stupid) questions. “How does the referee know the raiders are chanting ‘kabaddi, kabaddi’?” “They are such senior players that 30 seconds of holding the breath is nothing for them. They can do it up to a minute and half. He would rather keep an eye out for other ways of cheating.” Aha! But I thought better not to get into the shadier details just when I was getting a hang of the broad contours.

I loved the thigh five by the hunks. The gesture of slapping one’s thighs and pointing upwards radiated self-confidence but not contempt of the opposition, unlike the send-off that many bowlers give to dismissed batsmen in cricket. The first match ended at 38-35 in favour of Patna.

Next, Bengal Warriors took the field against Pune. Soon, jersey No. 45 picked up five points in his first raid, and three with his second, pushing Bengal to a 14-2 lead. I had found my Sachin Tendulkar on the mat, so what if he was from Korea. How valiantly did Jang Kun Lee fight, even when Bengal lost the plot midway and it became neck and neck! When the defender called Sachin lost us precious points twice by foolhardily trying to block a raider on the retreat single-handed, I found myself screaming: “Don’t insult Sachin. Change your name.”

We clinched it 38-35 and I found myself rushing to congratulate captain Nilesh Shinde. “Har point jeetne ya haarne ke baad dil mein jo dhakdhak hoti hai, usey kabaddi kehte hai. Yeh aapko cricket mein nahin milega,” he grinned. Despite being an Eden regular for 31 years, I believed him.