India and Iran are two of the biggest names in the sport of Kabaddi. Perhaps a reflection of that is the fact that the only non-Indian captain in this season of Pro Kabaddi is an Iranian. Unlike most of his counterparts though, Meraj Sheykh was not always a Kabaddi player. Speaking through a translator on the sidelines of the Pro Kabaddi season 5 trophy unveiling, the Iranian said that he was a wrestler until the age of 18. “My coach told me that I should pursue Kabaddi instead of wrestling,” he told indianexpress.com in an exclusive interaction.
His coach’s advice was well placed. Sheykh has since forged a successful career in the sport in which he has become an integral member of the Iranian national team that has, more often than not, been the only side to have challenged India’s supremacy.
In Pro Kabaddi, he has emerged as one of the most prominent foreign players in the league and was retained by Dabang Delhi as their elite player and captain this season. If there is any impediment that Sheykh may have, it is off the field. His English is only as good as his Hindi, which means he can hardly speak either language. “I know little Hindi, and little English, and I mix both to communicate,” he said. The Google Translator is his saviour in situations like these, says the all-rounder.
Sheykh says that the scope of success for a league like this back home is high. “All players want to come to Pro Kabaddi,” he said, “When the league starts, all Iranian players sit and watch it on the internet.”
Apart from the players’ enthusiasm, Kabaddi is as widely popular in Iran as it is in India. Indeed, the topic of whether Kabaddi originated in Persia or the Indian subcontinent remains a subject of debate. “Problem, only sponsor,” he said, rubbing his fingers in the universal sign denoting money. He says that lack of sponsorship is the only obstacle that stands in the way of Iran getting its own franchise-based Kabaddi league. “There are smaller tournaments there but there is no sponsorship for a league of this scale.”
Unlike what is the case in Iran though, India’s Pro Kabaddi has thrived with the influx of money. The league has been expanded to 12 teams this season and will run over three months. The opening fixtures will be played on July 28. Meraj Sheykh will be leading his Dabang Delhi to the mat against the Jaipur Pink Panthers on July 29.
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