KABADDI: TACKLED TO THE GROUND

18 Oct 2020

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Pakistani kabaddi players surround an Indian player during the 2020 Kabaddi World Cup final in Lahore in February
Pakistani kabaddi players surround an Indian player during the 2020 Kabaddi World Cup final in Lahore in February

The kabbadi fans of this country will not forget the evening of February 16, 2020 for a long time to come. It was under the powerful floodlights of the jam-packed Punjab Stadium in Lahore then that Pakistan made history by beating India by 43-41 in the final of the seventh Kabbadi World Cup. Up until then, India had remained the undefeated champion of all the previous six Kabbadi World Cups.

The eight-day event, with matches in Faisalabad and Gujrat as well in addition to Lahore, also featured kabaddi teams from Canada, England, Iran, Sierra Leone, Australia, Azerbaijan and Germany. And Pakistan emerged as the overall champion among all. India’s saying later that the team which lost to Pakistan in the final was an unauthorised squad, is besides the point here. It was still an unexpected result, as kabaddi is a dying sport in Pakistan.

Although the older players of this sport say that television and smart phones have depleted interest in kabbadi among the youth, the real reason behind the turning away of young players from the sport is far more complicated than just that. Eos spoke to several current and yesteryear players of the sport to understand what is actually hindering the progress of the game here.

Thirty-nine year old Nasir Ali points an accusing finger at the elected politicians within the Pakistan Kabaddi Federation (PKF) and its associations, who, he says, are the ones really responsible for destroying talent at the grassroots level of the sport. “If there is a good kabaddi player with dreams of representing Pakistan in kabaddi at the international level someday, the federation officials’ demands for huge amounts of money in connection with their travel and other expenditures during a tour ruin everything for them. If you can’t afford to pay for your travel, lodging and other expenses then you cannot avail the opportunity,” he reveals.

Born near Tehsil Dunyapur in District Lodhran, Nasir says that he was always interested in kabbadi as a child. “It was a very popular sport among us Punjabis and I took an active part in kabaddi matches at my school, too, until 1996. After that I joined the Pakistan Army as a soldier on their sports quota in 1999,” he says.

Despite Pakistan winning the Kabbadi World Cup for the first time this year, kabbadi is a dying sport in Pakistan. Current and former players weigh in why

“Departmental players are financially stronger than local club players,” he says, adding that players in departments are only expected to focus on their game. They don’t have to worry about finances, the biggest problem leading to a majority of the good kabaddi players from small towns and villages in southern Punjab quitting the sport. “These days 40,000 rupees a month is the normal basic dietary expenditure for any kabaddi player or wrestler. So as players they cannot survive without a regular job,” he says.

He also says that there is not a single paisa received by any kabbadi player here in the name of stipend at the district and union council levels, though it is mentioned in their official documents that they are providing money to the local players in small towns and villages.

Muddasir Munir, 27, another Army player who hails from Lahore, also tells Eos that there is, “sadly”, no government support at the grassroots level for kabaddi in Pakistan.

“I represented Punjab in kabbadi in the National Games held in Chichawatni in 2008 and won a silver medal there,” he says, adding that in Pakistan Army’s own championships held in Sargodha in 2014 he also took gold. “Kabaddi has huge scope at the international level, but I don’t see a future for it at the national level,” he says.

“The sports sections in Pakistan Railways, Police, Wapda and other departments are now disbanding their kabbadi teams but the Pakistan Army still has a strong sports section which also includes a kabaddi outfit,” says Muddasir. “I have not seen any sports festivals organised by this present government for the promotion or its players of kabaddi at the provincial or district level,” he regrets.

Kabaddi is a sport of Punjab, which is still played in places such as Lahore, Faisalabad, Gujranwala, Sialkot, Sahiwal, etc. In upper Punjab, they have huge sponsors for the holding of kabaddi events, but the opposite is the case in southern Punjab. And yet southern Punjab can boast of many good kabaddi players of the past, including the international Mohammad Hussain, Chaudhry Naeem, Afzal Waraich, Mushtaq Ahmed Waraich, Hasan Abbasi, Tajamul Gujar, Ali Afsar Waraich and Waqas Arain.

‘Jagga’ or Rasheed Ahmed Lang is a 72-year-old veteran kabbadi player, who believes that technology is the reason behind the decline in the interest of youth in the sport in northern Punjab. “Interest in any sport among our young generation is gone now, thanks to their whiling away their precious time watching television or staring into their smart phones. I had no such thing to keep me from taking part in kabbadi in my heyday,” he says.

“I started competing in kabbadi matches in my village to then turn professional in 1975 and make my town, Kahror Pakka, famous and synonymous with my name,” he says. “I would take part in kabbadi competitions in Lodhran, Dunyapur, Bahawalpur and Multan, as well as in small villages, that I won.

“From 1975 to 1988, I won several prizes in kabbadi,” Rasheed says, adding that the reward money in the past used to amount to only around 50 or 100 rupees. “As the teams scored, there used to be a lot of celebration in the form of beating drums, bhangra dances and even horses dancing as the commentators in Punjabi would go completely crazy.”

Rasheed adds that Seth Jabbar and Rana Taj Uttera used to be the most famous and popular kabaddi players of his time. Their scissor hold was said to be unmatched in entire Punjab. “Seth Jabbar’s flying scissor hold was phenomenal. It was his key to getting victories for his team,” he says.

Despite these illustrious memories of the glory days, it’s true that kabbadi has not been able to attract the kind of glamour associated with sports such as cricket and football. Part of this may be because of the association of the sport with a rural setting and part of it may be because it is still a sport played only by Punjabi communities around the world. But obviously providing support to indigenous sports like kabbadi is an issue that goes — or should go — beyond mere issues of marketing.

Meanwhile, in their defense, PKF’s Secretary General Mohammad Sarwar Rana tells Eos that the Sports Ministry or the Pakistan Sports Board are not providing any funds to the federation. “PKF has been trying to generate funding on its own through sponsors to help kabbadi players at the district level,” he says. “But of course we cannot reach all of them, as many players drop their kabbadi ambitions and seek proper sources of income for themselves,” he adds.

Refuting allegations of demanding money from players for foreign tours, Rana states that the PKF has never demanded any money from any players in this regard. “We are answerable to the Sports Ministry and the Sports Board, so if any players here would like to complain about us they are more than welcome to approach us and we will take strict action against any officials who may have asked them to pay them any money,” he says.

The writer is a freelance journalist He tweets @Zafar_Khan5

Published in Dawn, EOS, Octoberr 18th, 2020