Within a few minutes of the start it was clear that the Sports Authority of India (SAI) raiders lacked the pace to outwit a strong Tamil Nadu squad. It was the final of the Junior Kabaddi National Championship and the onus fell on the SAI defenders to pull off a win. Invariably, those on the sidelines who knew the team well found their gaze settling on Sandeep Kandola.
The defender stepped up, initiating strong tackles and covering up for his co-defenders with support challenges. At the end of the 40 minutes, the teenager had won the match for his team, almost unassisted.
The game gave him the attention he needed to enter the PKL. And now, in his first season in the marquee event, the 18-year-old, who is the second youngest to ever play in the tournament, has equalled the record for most successful tackles in a season — 53 — which he shares with Dabang Delhi captain Ravinder Pahal.
Among the newcomers in the second edition of the elite league, the Telugu Titans left-corner defender has been the find of the year. Nonetheless, the Hyderabad-franchise coach Udaya Kumar recalls a time when he struggled to get his management to sign the youngster. “All I told my management was that Sandeep will start each game for the team. That was enough,” mentions Kumar.
And indeed, Kandola has been in the starting seven for all his team’s matches this season. The most prominent defender in an attack-minded roster, the six-footer has become famous for the powerful grip he gets on his ankle-hold tackles. Interestingly, the defensive manoeuvre is a technique he learnt watching Joginder Narwal, another new entrant in the PKL.
Hailing from Budain village, in Jind district of Haryana, the youngster was witness to various tournaments held around the state, most of which the Sonipat-based Narwal featured in. “He plays the same position I play. The crowd cheered every time he caught a raider with an ankle-hold, so I wanted to learn the same move,” explains Kandola.
Then just 15, the youngster’s resolve to emulate his idol brought him to the village ground an hour before the daily 4pm practice sessions. The idea was simple: practice the movement required to lock in an ankle-hold. “I’d take a quick step forward, bend down, stretch my arms, and grab an imaginary foot. That’s all I’d do for an hour,” he says.
Following each private workout, his eight-year elder cousin Manjeet would correct Kandola’s technique. “I was quite good, so there wasn’t much he could change,” Kandola adds lightly.
Manjeet, however, still held an instrumental role in Kandola’s career. As the only boy among four, Kandola was sheltered by both his parents and sisters. So much so that he was restricted from performing physically strenuous activities on his parents’ wheat and cotton plantations. “There was a financial crunch, but they never let me help pluck cotton or harvest wheat for long. Essentially, I’d just laze around at home,” he recalls.
Appalled by the then 12-year-old’s lethargy, Manjeet ‘dragged’ his younger cousin to the village kabaddi court.
“Manjeet had been playing for years. He knew I was terrible at academics, and thought I could at least have a career in kabaddi. He trained me and used to take me to watch matches. That’s where I saw Joginder,” Kandola mentions.
Copying the Bengaluru Bulls defender’s technique, Kandola successfully tried out for the Gandhinagar-based SAI camp last year. Since then he’s made his way to the junior national camp set-up, followed by the call up to the PKL.
Now level on the leaderboard for the most successful tackles, the teenager is pipped to take the lead when the Titans play the Patna Pirates in the third place playoff match at the National Sports Club of India in Mumbai. Ask what has been the most unnerving moment in his debut season and Kandola says he was most worried about the reaction of Bulls’ raider Ajay Thakur, an Asian Games medallist whom he had tackled several times during the two teams’ meetings.
“I was scared, but Ajay just ruffled my hair, said ‘shabaash,’ and walked on,” he claims, smiling.
On Sunday: 3rd place play-off: Patna Pirates vs Telugu Titans; Final: U Mumba vs Bengaluru Bulls. Matches live on Star Sports from 8 pm.