“Give Nepal 5-6 years, and they’ll start beating India,” comes the lanky lad’s doomsday prophecy, tumbling out at great speed and with an urgency that will barely strike a chord with any of his disinterested country folk. Unlike his illustrious namesake in cricket – the legendary Vijay Hazare – this Vijay Hazare is a ‘batsman’ in a modest, low-key sport: kho kho.
The young man from Ichalkaranji in Kolhapur, though, did emerge as India’s best player at the recent Nationals, turning out for Indian Railways who created a stir by beating longstanding champions Maharashtra for the first time ever. He also travelled with the Indian team to the South Asian Games where a surprisingly well-trained Nepal team ran them very close prompting his apocalyptic prediction for Indian kho kho (As originators of the sport, India rule it. Up to now.)
With great historical relish and drawing parallels from the doomed Panipat war that ended Maratha supremacy to Indian kabaddi’s overthrow at the 2018 Asian Games by Iran, Vijay Hazare has a ready villain for the piece: the turf. As kho kho goes international with its first pro league this year, the traditional school playground game is forced to relocate from bare feet on mud to shoes on the mat.
It’s a repeat of the kushti story all over again for Maharashtra, Hazare says, speaking from the Ground Zero of kho kho – Jayhind Mandal in Kolhapur, a legacy mud sport club dating back to 1945, which churns out national champions year after year and is one of India’s hotbeds for the sport. Close to 50 from Jayhind have kho-khoed their way into jobs with police, army, railways and state departments.
“Railways beat Maharashtra because we trained on the mat for a month. Once players from the north see opportunity and money in this sport when the league starts, Maharashtra will struggle just as it did when wrestling moved from mud to mat,” Hazare says of the oncoming overthrow.
The sport rewards power, speed and strength when it moves onto the mat. “Almost double-triple energy is needed on the mat. Those who could play 2-3 minutes of non-stop chasing and batting, now get breathless at the one-minute mark. And if Maharashtra players don’t adapt quickly, then naturally Punjab, Haryana, UP players are going to edge them out. Players get older quickly now on the mat. You watch,” he says. “And if Nepal could scare India, imagine what other Asian countries will do….”
So, the wrestling, hockey and kabaddi playbook goes on the loop: a long, rich history of dominance goes kaput when the new turf is wheeled in. This isn’t an ordinary mat either. 535 mat pieces are needed to build one kho-kho playing ‘field’, shiny and blue. 600 pieces come for a whistling 7 lakh. Not all state teams could afford these this year (Railways promptly shopped for it sensing a chance to upstage Maharashtra). “It’ll be difficult for individual clubs to own these,” Hazare says.
While bruises and blood injuries significantly reduced at the Nationals and some heroic pole dives were witnessed, kho kho’s first tryst with the mat at the nationals led to several ankle twists as players struggled to run with shoes on the mat, with an almighty drag exerted on the calves. 0“It helps the runners – the batsmen. Chasing speed is reduced to 40 per bcent and becomes very tough. The difference is zameen aur aasmaan between mud and mat,” he reiterates.
Kolhapur – a nursery for wrestlers of yore – also boasted of India’s top five kho kho clubs. “Pandhari nagri” – spiritual home, he calls it. “All of Central and Western Railways players are from here. Now South-Central and Northern have started bolstering their teams with Punjab and Andhra players who are strong on mat,” he says.
Kho kho draws its players from lower- and middle-class households, and Hazare’s story is no different. He was born to a humble home where his father still runs a paan shop, where sparing money for him led to noisy fights between his parents and grandparents till the time his sisters completed their education and married to move away. “The sport was my sanctuary from being poor and repaying loan installments and the fights,” he recalls.
His coach at Central Railway Sudhir Mhaske, who mentored him, was a senior ticket collector who needed to supplement his income to keep the team alive by turning into a bag man. In Mumbai, Brihannamumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), Maharashtra State Electricity Board (MSEB) and Mazgaon Docks had kho kho teams but the maximum prize money for a winning team would only be Rs 3,000. The upcoming Pro League might change things for the better, if it takes off.
But the change to mat has set kho kho on an irreversible path: “An injury on the mat – no blood, but broken bones – can set you back by Rs 50,000. The sport has changed completely with the mat. Neither Maharashtra at the Nationals, nor India in Asia should take their dominance for granted. The mat changes everything.”
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