IT’S ALMOST a Rajnikant-like legendary status that follows Jeeva Kumar in the South Indian kabaddi circles. U Mumba CEO Supratik Sen recalls a small-scale tournament just a few years ago where the 34-year-old was set to feature in.
“People heard that Jeeva would be playing. So around 50,000 odd people showed up just to see him. He’s a defender, which is probably the least glamourous of the positions. That just shows you how big a star he is,”
Sen says. On the first day of the second Pro Kabaddi League season, it was the diminutive giant in the Mumbai-franchise defence that prevailed.
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With the raiders ineffective against defending champions Jaipur Pink Panthers, the Tamil Nadu native won four super tackles for his team — two of which were through ankle holds. His efforts helped U Mumba pip Jaipur Panthers to a 29-28 win in the league opener.
Interestingly enough, it was practicing the defensive manoeuvre itself that created an interest in the game for him. His elder brother Raju Gopal was a prominent player in their native Thekkurici village in the Kanyakumari district.
“I didn’t play, but my brother used to tell me to hold his ankle and not to let him go. Soon I got better at it and he couldn’t get loose. That’s how my interest grew,” he recalls.
Playing with his brother in the local team was the first step. He explains how the remoteness of his village provided the residents just one bus a week to the nearest city.
Soon he found himself taking that bus as a part of the district team. Subsequently, he left behind the responsibilities he held at his parents’ coconut plantation.
“I used to sow the seeds and then look after the trees. Once in a while I’d climb up a few to pluck a few coconuts too,” he mentions. But the withdrawal of Jeeva from the farm was welcomed by his parents.
“They wanted me to earn a good living, which could only come outside the village,” he adds.His prowess on the court permanently took him away from his home in order to take up a banking job in Bangalore where he plays for Karnataka in the nationals. Steadily the Indian team called for his services for international events — Jeeva becoming a veteran of the gold medal winning 2010 Asian Games and 2012 SAFF Games squad.
His career on the national set-up has diminished though. Yet on the domestic circuit, he still commands respect from his peers all over the country.
He is known as the ferocious defender nobody likes to tackle, despite his short height. But it is an oddly formed pinky finger on his right hand that has become his signature bodily deformity.
“It broke three years ago during the nationals. At that time I just put it back in the socket but it was lopsided. But since it doesn’t stop me from getting ankle holds, I haven’t bothered fixing it,” Jeeva concludes.