India won, barely. The reigning Asian Games kabaddi champions defended their title against yet another Iran team sent to conquer the unseen — be the first ever team to beat India to gold at the continental stage last October.
The Iranians had failed in their task. But the complexion of the victor and the vanquished had changed drastically after the final whistle. There was drooping relief on the shoulders of the winners rather than the usual high-collared arrogance they had become accustomed to.
The Iranians in turn stood tall, firm and boisterous, still mirroring the aggression they displayed before the game when they performed their own rendition of the Haka.
And just as the Maori war cry presents a challenge to the opponent, so did the Iranians soon after the match. “If you want a competitive and tougher Pro Kabaddi League, call us. We want to play there with or against you,” they said.
Indian coaches had studied the Iranians with awe. So much so that four of the squad members were soon auctioned off to PKL franchises. Among them, 23-year-old Hadi Oshtorak and 27-year-old Meraj Sheykh were sold for a combined Rs 41.2 lakh to the Telegu Titans.
Sheykh went for Rs 20.1 lakh while his compatriot’s Rs 21.1 lakh capture shattered the previous Rs 12.8 lakh high-sale record held by an Indian to become the two highest paid in the league. Iran skipper Fazel Atrachali was sold to U Mumba for Rs 4 lakh while Mohammad Maghsoudlou got Rs 7 lakh from Jaipur Pink Panthers.
The making of a powerful rivalry pivoting on respect for the Iranians was complete.
The origin of the game itself has been one of contentious debate between the two nations. India cites the game as being played within its borders since ancient times — mentions of it in scriptures, myths and epics et al. Iran meanwhile takes credit in inventing the sport several centuries ago, spreading it to the subcontinent via merchant trade routes. “I started kabaddi when I was 18 years old, I am living in Sistan and this area is the origin of world kabaddi. I don’t like football,” Meraj says.
But India is widely acknowledged as the birth-place of kabaddi, further intensifying the Middle Eastern nation’s resolve to reach the summit in the sport. The final at Incheon itself was one India skipper Rakesh Kumar describes as a game that ‘should not have been won.’ Yet more importantly, he fears that Iran;s very close to attaining the top spot.
A hard-fought win for India, that too in a final, was just as unprecedented as the strength and determination Iran exhibited. In both the 2006 and 2010 editions that Kumar competed in, his team stormed through each match. In 2014 though, he claims superior experience was the eventual champions’ only saviour against a younger opposition. “Eventually we were trying to figure out how we actually won, and they were trying to figure out how they lost. That’s what that match was about,” recalls the 33-year-old.
Just as it was with the Indians, the riches of the marquee league will enhance their lifestyles. “20 lakhs equals 1100000000 rials,” Meraj says.
“I recently got engaged and will be getting married after the PKL. So the money will help in bringing a good life for my family,” mentions Oshtorak. Sheykh meanwhile, as the sole-earner in his family will use the money for household expenses.
There is now a one-track approach that the Iranians have applied toward their Indian counterparts — uproot the subcontinental team’s hold of the top spot. A veteran of three Asian Games titles and two World Cup wins, Kumar recalls first hearing of the Middle Easterners challenge back in 2003. “We beat them at one tournament and they told us to watch out because they were going to beat us big time one day,” he says.
“They’re actually working towards it. Our national camps are on for two months, theirs go on for two years continuously!” he exclaims.
Soon after Incheon, Iran won the gold at the Asian Beach Games at Thailand, comprehensively beating India 40-31 in the group stage.
“Pakistan used to be the team we weren’t allowed to lose to. Now it is Iran,” says Kumar. Hadi Oshtorak and Meraj Sheykh, the highest paid players in the Indian league, might well be looking to raid the best defences and show their class.