Speed that rattles
Three nights ago, a friend sat in front of my living room television entranced and a tad smitten. On show was a pulsating encounter from the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL), featuring Bengal Warriors and Jaipur Pink Panthers. He kept gawking at the screen as the Panthers' Jasvir Singh raided the opposition territory almost at will for much of the first half. Short and muscular, the slightly-balding Singh was like a rattle snake - swift and impossible to suppress. Even though the Warriors snatched a last-minute win, Singh walked away with the Best Raider award after the match. Last season, Singh's sprightly raids won his team the title. In a lot of ways, Singh is the apotheosis of the modern kabaddi player.
Sahu explains that the raider is the most important position on the team as he is the one who wins you points. The traits that coaches generally look for in young raiders are speed, agility and presence of mind. All the top raiders in the country - Anup Kumar, Rahul Chaudhuri and Surjeet Narwal - come packed with these qualities. "Speed is the most obvious because kabaddi is mainly based around that. But more important is knowing when to attack. That's where presence of mind comes into play," explains Sahu.
At Sahu's academy, players spend hours perfecting raiding techniques. Special focus is placed on body movements, dodging and ways to wiggle out of tight situations when you're stranded in enemy territory. Holding your breath is another aspect of the game that most players take time to master. "On the face of it, kabaddi is a simple sport. But it has its own intricacies. You have to stay in control all the time. Momentum swings can be very quick sometimes," says Sahu.
While raiders go all out on most times, Sahu says that restraint must be shown if a team is leading and it is desperate to close out a game. "We've seen teams throw away leads in PKL because they find it difficult to go from offence to defence," says Sahu. "Players have to sacrifice their attacking instinct to seal wins. That is very important."
A winning defence
Forty two-year-old Anand Dahiya, who has been a kabaddi coach for more than 15 years, vividly recalls how every young boy who came to Ludhiana's Jai Hanuman Kabaddi Club a few years ago wanted to become a raider. "It was like an obsession. Young men just wanted to get on to the field and raid the opposition. If I compare it with cricket, it was like every boy wanting to become a batsman. Nobody wanted to become a bowler," recalls Dahiya.
The 2014 season of PKL threw up some stirring performances in defence. Bengaluru Bulls' Manjeet Chillar, who last year amassed the most points defensively, was an unstoppable force throughout the tournament, utilising his sneaky brain and broad frame to great effect.
Defenders are generally bulkier than raiders, given that they're assigned with the onerous task of stopping wriggly defenders from escaping. "Chillar, for example, is an all-round player. He is equally adept at attack and defence. But for those who we think aren't fit enough to raid, we try to develop them into solid stoppers," explains Dahiya.
He adds that the importance of strength is sometimes undermined in modern in kabaddi. "There is too much focus on agility. But if you look at some of the better players that we have - Rakesh Kumar, Sandeep Narwal, Jasvir Singh - they are all strongly built."
At the Jai Hanuman Kabaddi Club, the training regime is strenuous. Raiders and defenders alike are put through their paces twice a day - first at seven in the morning and then at five in the evening. Warm-up exercises, which mainly include running, are followed by defensive and offensive drills that mainly focus on feet movement, ankle and knee locks, and strength training.
For those who wish to take up the sport, Dahiya says that apart from a sound understanding of the game, the other qualities that are required are quickness and stamina. "If you have these two qualities, the rest can be achieved through hard work," he says.