The celebratory mood suddenly became sombre when Jaiveer Sharma walked up to the Korean team. Korea had just pulled off an unexpected win over hosts and powerhouse India in the opening match of the 2016 Kabaddi World Cup – their first ever win over India in the sport. Subsequently, the 50-year-old kabaddi coach had a simple congratulatory note he wanted to offer to the victors. Only, the Koreans decided to provide an unexpected gesture of their own to their former mentor. Almost in unison, the team of 14 bowed before the veteran, and uttered their own message. “Sorry Papa,” Sharma laughs as he recites what was said.
Just over four years ago, Sharma had been appointed as coach of the Korea team that was scheduled to train under him at the Sports Authority of India complex in Gandhinagar, in a move to help them prepare for the Incheon Asian Games of 2014. For Sharma, training his foreign wards was a simple matter of instilling a proper playing technique as their physical conditioning – strength and speed in particular – was already deemed top notch. Yet the pronunciation of the player’s names proved to be a task in itself. “I would get confused by their names because it sounded similar sometimes, so I started giving them nicknames of my own,” he says.
As such, star raider Jang Kun Lee, who is well known from his exploits for the Bengal Warriors in the Pro Kabaddi League – and who scored Korea’s winning points against India – soon became ‘Kaka.’ “I still call him that,” adds Sharma, who invariably became ‘Papa’ for the team.
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The Korean rise, however, had begun long before Sharma began mentoring the squad. Back in 2002, the organisers of the Busan Asian Games requested the Amateur Kabaddi Federation of India (AKFI) to provide a representative to help direct the construction of the court and other features needed for the sport. At the time, the hosts were interested only in organising the event and nothing further. In fact, Korea didn’t even send a team of their own (they would make their Asian Games debut in 2010). Yet E Prasad Rao, the legendary Indian coach who was sent to assist in organising the sport at the Busan Games decided to teach the officials the rules anyway.
“The competition manager Yeong Hak Yoon was fascinated and he realised that if Korea can organise such a strong event, they can play in it too. So he asked me to teach the game at schools and colleges,” Rao explains.
Now, fourteen years later, Yoon is the Secretary General of the International Kabaddi Federation (IKF) and Rao sees the effects of the grassroots level program he had once helped set up. “They started developing it when I was there. Now they’re beating us. Kabaddi is no longer an India-dominated game. It’s time we wake up to that,” Rao adds.
In turn Sharma too sees a strong build up in the way the Korean team prepares. “They toured India a lot in 2013 with me to prepare for the Asian Games. And their captain Dong Ju Hong is a masterful tactician. He would have studied many videos from the Pro Kabaddi League to strategise against India,” he says.
Sharma remembers witnessing an eager reception to learn when he first met the Korean team at Gandhinagar. Each instruction from the coach was studied, analysed, broken down, and then, astonishingly, questioned. “In India, you give a player some instructions and they will do it without thinking twice. The Koreans wanted to learn the benefit of each thing so they knew exactly what they were doing. Baarik baarik se sawaal karte the,” he recalls. (They asked minutest of questions.)
And he gets those questions still. Sharma no longer serves as the mentor for the foreign team, yet still they persist in messaging him through social media whenever in doubt. It was particularly prominent just last month at the Asian Beach Games in Vietnam, where Sharma travelled along with the Indian contingent. “I was coaching India, their rival, and still they’d come to me with questions,” he says, laughing. “And I’d answer them too,” he adds.
India thump Australia 54-20
India got their World Cup campaign back on track with a thumping 54-20 win over Australia on Saturday. India’s next opponent is Bangladesh, whom they will face on Tuesday. The hosts needs to win all their remaining matches to advance to the semis.