‘Pakistan World Cup’s sitara is now in our midst’

At Kabbadi Friendship Cup in Nihal Singh Wala, Moga, where players who returned from Pakistan were cheered, including for their injuries. (Express Photo: Jaipal Singh)

As Tarinder Singh a.k.a ‘Nanni Gopalpuria’, 27, makes his way into the stadium at village Nihal Singh Wala in Punjab’s Moga, the public address system bursts into life, with excited commentators announcing the arrival of the ‘lion’. The 15,000-strong crowd, many of them sitting on trucks, let out a roar. From the back, rings out a shout: “Aa gaya Pakistan World Cup da sitara maidan vich (The star of the Pakistan Kabaddi World Cup is in the ring)”.

Earlier this month, an ‘unofficial’ 12-member India team made its way to Lahore through the Attari-Wagah border for a ‘World Cup’ organised by the Pakistan Kabbadi Federation and Pakistan’s Punjab government. Singh was the captain of the group, that included the team, a coach, a manager and three officials.

With all ties between India and Pakistan off, the news coming from Lahore left many red faces on this side of the border. Sports Minister Kiren Rijiju asked the Amateur Kabaddi Federation of India to conduct an inquiry. The federation, as well as the Indian Olympic Association, made it clear they had not sent any team. The International Kabaddi Federation termed the Pakistan tournament un-recognised.

The previous six Kabaddi ‘World Cups’ were all held in India, with the Punjab government organising them. Pakistan’s ‘World Cup’ wasn’t recognised.

In Nihal Singh Wala for a ‘Kabaddi Friendship Cup’, representing his club Doaba Warriors, Singh dismisses the row. “I went to Pakistan to play and I am here to play kabaddi as well,” he says, waving to the crowd with a bruised elbow. As the commentators remind that the injury was sustained at the Lahore final, which the ‘India’ team lost to Pakistan 41-43, there is more applause.

‘Circle-style’ kabbadi, Singh adds, has “given me everything”. Across the world there are around 12 federations that organise 200-odd tournaments of this style kabaddi, including in the US, Canada, Malaysia and Australia. Pakistan mostly organises a national-level tournament.

“Competing here and abroad is the only thing we aim for. The Pakistan Kabaddi Federation sent invites to the Punjab Kabaddi Federation (India) as well as to players individually and I decided to go… If not the team kit of India, which team’s should we have worn at Pakistan stadiums? That’s what I want to ask everybody,” Singh adds, on the controversy.

Circle-style kabaddi has ‘raiders’ from one team venturing into the circle of the rival side, who have to be blocked by ‘stoppers’ of that side. There can’t be any empty raids like in the Pro Kabaddi League or national-style kabaddi where players queue up in lines on two sides.

One of the stars of the Punjab kabaddi scene, Singh, from Gopalpur village near Kapurthala, has won 45-50 motorcycles, three cars and two tractors over seven years of playing circle style. The season in India runs from September to March, and the 27-year-old plays up to 150 matches over the seven months, before the action shifts abroad.

Among the members of the team that went to Lahore was Vinay Khatri, a 22-year-old ‘raider’ from Kharak Jattan village in Haryana. Also a highly valued player, Khatri has turned out for teams like the USA California, comprising India-origin players from America, at local competitions in Punjab. His winnings include 60-65 motorcycles, a car and 20 LED TVs, apart from cash prizes.

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Arguing that it’s unfair to target them, Khatri says, “Since kabbadi is not played at any international competition, we look forward to tournaments like the Global Kabaddi League or Kabaddi World Cup. In Pakistan, fans told me they had watched my games on YouTube.”

The prize money sustains them, he adds. “Most of us don’t have jobs and there are expenses, on fitness, injuries, travel.”

Malwinder Singh Gobindpuria, who also went to Lahore, has played in leagues in England and says kabaddi is their bread and butter. “Competing in Pakistan’s Punjab meant we played in front of kabaddi fans as passionate as the ones in India.”

Incidentally, a day after the others went to Lahore, Yadha Surakhpur, Khushi Duggan and Dulla Baggapind realised their application for Pakistan visas had been denied. Says a rueful Surakhpur, “I was scheduled to play in a village tournament and to join the team later. We had prepared for this tournament.”

Satpal Singh Kharial, who travelled to Pakistan as a commentator, wishes the government would support the players. “In Pakistan, the kabaddi players told us that all of them had government jobs. In India, players participate in different leagues with no formal body in-charge or compete in club tournaments and events termed ‘unofficial’ by the government… The players are ready for any inquiry, but circle kabaddi needs to be organised.”

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