Pro Kabaddi League: From being an ‘unappealing sport’ to a spectacle, in just two seasons

With the third edition of Pro Kabaddi League set to begin this month, Suhail Chandhok writes about his experience, venturing into this 'new' sport.

Written by Suhail Chandhok | Updated: January 24, 2016 2:54:24 pm

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We’re days away from yet another season of what has quickly become one of India’s biggest sporting spectacles. I have seen the Pro Kabaddi League evolve since its inception, and witnessed the transition of India’s very own sport from its roots on the mud to the phenomenon that it is today – on the purple mat to cheering fans at stadiums across the country.

It’s fair to say that it wasn’t all smooth sailing. But the journey – from being someone who had last played the game in school to being a commentator for the sport – has been nothing short of overwhelming.

I still remember coming off my previous assignment with Star Sports, a show called Star Power, in August 2014 and wondering what the next step was in my short career as a sports presenter. The office was abuzz about the launch of a new kabaddi league, but I’ll be completely honest by saying that a lot of the buzz equated to chuckles rather than any hope of the event being the next big thing in Indian sport.

Coming from a family with three generations of sport, I was often ridiculed for watching sports like Sepak Tekraw (a form of Malaysian kick volleyball) or Table Tennis on DD Sports or for having posters of Graham Thorpe and Michael Bevan up in my room instead of Sachin Tendulkar. The funny thing was, I just didn’t care and even vividly remember listening to the commentary back then as an overconfident young sports nut going: “I could do what they’re doing. I just analysed the very same thing!”

At that point, however, there was no inclination of wanting to, or even ever dreaming of having the opportunity to be a sports commentator and the very thought might have seemed far-fetched. So, 20 years on, when I heard murmurs of an opening for an English commentator for the new Kabaddi League, I was immediately intrigued. What I also realised, quite quickly, was that it was an assignment turned down by a few already, for being “too risky” and “unappealing” a proposition because, after all, who in India was going to tune-in to 14 grown men playing an adult version of tag, right?

To me, it might have seemed a gamble had I listened to the several notes of sarcasm around the office at the very mention of the word “kabaddi”, but there was a little voice within that saw it as an opportunity and one that could potentially live out a childhood fantasy.

The process – from audition to confirmation – lasted all of an hour and a half and I wasn’t sure at that time if that was perhaps a sign of late desperation or the quality of my work, but I was certainly chuffed and couldn’t quite believe what I was getting myself into.

Two seasons on, I’d like to believe it was the latter! What I didn’t quite realise, was that I had forgotten most of the basics of the sport from school and that I had all of six days to learn everything about an entirely new sport, its players, the teams, the new rules and still feel confident enough to hold my own every night for 80 minutes on Asia’s largest sports network without sounding like a bungling idiot! I had one thing going for me though – I loved what I did, lived for sports and realised that I had the opportunity to get paid to do what I would essentially love to do sitting in front of my television at home! I also soon realised that my penchant for research and homework would finally come handy!

The last thing I wanted was the tag of “he’s just a youngster who doesn’t know much” following me after my first outing as a commentator. It therefore meant knowing more than what would ever be needed and quickly striving to be as good as an expert on a sport I had just reacquainted myself with. I remember receiving a lovely Tweet telling me that I was India’s youngest lead English sports commentator at the time but more importantly, that I sounded like I belonged. It truly did feel like I had found my calling – getting paid to talk, ABOUT SPORT!!!

I work on the premise that you might have a new viewer tuning in at any point and that if you can’t keep him glued there, over any random two-minute duration of a game, you’re not doing a solid enough job. Beyond that, as long as they’re not reaching for the mute button, I’m a happy camper!

I don’t think I’ll ever forget the day we first turned up at the empty NSCI Stadium in Mumbai for rehearsals and saw the court light up with the image transmitted to our monitors in the commentary box. I distinctly remember the one thought that took over… we were onto something here, something truly magnificent! How glad I am that we weren’t wrong.

If Season 1 was about educating the viewer (and myself) on the basic nuances of the game and getting them excited, season 2 was about adding an extra layer to the understanding of the game. It was also about building new heroes out of the men that entertained us with their athleticism but also had us awestruck with their humility and respect for the sport, and each other.

As we’re on the cusp of another scintillating showing of India’s own sport, I remind myself of the promise I made to never take a day on this job for granted and while the pre-match nerves may not be as intense after over 100 live games, it helps to still have those few butterflies in the stomach… The only difference is that I’ve now found the confidence to get them to fly in formation!

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