The stage was all his, but Ejjapureddi Prasad Rao had no idea how he was to win over his audience. Seated before him at a temple in Tortola, the largest city in the British Virgin Islands in the West Indies, were over 100 confused citizens. Rao, 61, had been sent the distance to promote kabaddi by the organisers of the inaugural World Cup in 2004. If anybody could mould a competitive team in a country that had no idea about the sport, it was “Kabaddi Rao”, India’s first professional coach in the sport — he who had coached the Indian team to four consecutive Asian Games gold medals between 1990 to 2002, and the first kabaddi coach to win the Dronacharya Award.
But the islanders knew nothing about that; Rao learnt that just a few in the audience had heard a fleeting mention of the sport. But given how the people of Tortola traced their roots to India, who they were aware of and self-professed fans of, was the actor Amitabh Bachchan. That was Rao’s cue. He raised his right hand, pinching the air between his thumb and index finger as if he were holding a piece of paper. He asked the crowd to imagine 12 plane tickets in his hand. “I’m here to select 12 people to take back to India to meet Amitabh Bachchan,” Rao had roared into a microphone. “All you have to do is play a small game,” he added a beat later. And that’s how Rao started to build the first ever kabaddi team from the West Indies.
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Kabaddi Rao’s capabilities go well beyond just introducing the sport to a set of islands at the heart of the Caribbean. His greatest contribution to the sport, as it is seen today in the form of the glam and panache of the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL), was providing the inspiration for creating the marquee event. The PKL has often been viewed as Charu Sharma’s brainchild. Sharma though claims that the idea came to him when he travelled to Doha, with commentating responsibilities, and saw the grand presentation of the sport at the 2006 Asian Games in Doha.
Just over 10 years ago, the organising committee in Qatar didn’t know how to organise a kabaddi tournament. However, what they were equipped with was a lavish budget, and Rao came highly recommended to them to provide the organisers with the technical know-how of the sport. Upon his advice, a trial tournament was held in 2005 between India, Iran, Pakistan and Japan. It was supposed to be a quiet affair to test the indoor lighting system and how it affected game-play. It was also the first time players were to wear shoes — Rao’s idea. Somehow, the locals got wind of the mock-competition, rushed to the venue and started cheering for their favourite team. “It was clear that the sport was going to get a big crowd. That’s when they decided to build a new stadium with Olympic style facilities,” says Rao.
Aspire Hall was an air-conditioned arena, from where kabaddi matches of the Asian Games would be televised for the first time in the sport’s history. “Tickets had sold out months in advance. They were generally priced at 20 riyals each. The ones for the India-Pakistan final were being sold in black for 200 riyals,” says Rao. In turn, Sharma perceived the scope of the format, thanks to Rao’s additions and changes. “If PKL were to have been designed on a canvas, then Kabaddi Rao sketched the artwork and gave others the chance to add the colour and flavour,” he says.
Rao’s involvement in the PKL is hands-on. As technical director, he’s often seen pacing along the side of the court nearest to the technical desk, sporting a Nehru jacket. Most players will tower over Rao’s diminutive frame, but all aggression fades away when facing the legendary coach. “Even big players like Rakesh Kumar, who was once my student, will bow before me,” he says, with a touch of pride.
Interestingly, Rao never carved much of a playing career for himself. Growing up in a middle-class family in Vijaynagar, Andhra Pradesh, Rao enjoyed playing kho-kho in his youth. It was only in the eighth grade that he made the switch to kabaddi, on the insistence of his PE teacher Bhagwan Das.
He showed promise, making it to the junior state team. However, once he made the promotion to the senior level, which at the time was the highest stage in the sport (it hadn’t been given an international status yet), Rao found it difficult to compete. In fact, he played just one senior national tournament. “Players then weighed over 100 kgs because there was no limit then like there is now. I was short and light, so I was easily bullied,” recalls Rao. “I realised quite early that I didn’t have a chance as a player. Perhaps, I’d be a better coach.”
In 1975, while most of his peers were looking for jobs as kabaddi players, 21-year-old Rao secured a position of PE teacher in Orissa. Five years down the line, he pursued a diploma course in coaching from the National Institute of Sport in Bangalore. “After that, I got a job at the Sports Authority of India (SAI) in Bangalore, and started training future coaches,” he says.
By 1990, when the sport was introduced as a permanent event in the Asian Games, Rao was given the task of putting together the first Indian team. “It had to be me. All other coaches were my students,” he says. Rao’s popularity at the time led to the moniker “Kabaddi Rao” and since then, his dedication to the sport has seen India win seven gold medals in seven Asian Games — the first four coming when he was the head coach. He left the national coach position after winning the Dronacharya Award in 2002.
In 1999, Rao set up the first-ever kabaddi hostel in the SAI complex in Gandhinagar, Gujarat. All 16 athletes of the first batch who trained there under Rao have played for India. Manpreet Singh, skipper of the Patna Pirates team that won the recently-concluded third season of the PKL, is a product of Rao’s school. “Woh academy nahi, kabaddi ka mandir hai. He is the high priest of the game,” he says. PKL’s poster-boy Rakesh Kumar agrees: “If it weren’t for his training, I’d never have won two World Cups and three Asian Games gold medals.”
Rao continued training students at Gandhinagar till 2008. Simultaneously, he was also handling the role of technical director of the 2002 Asian Games in Busan. Joining him on the technical team of subsequent international events was his wife Mythreyee, who looks after the scoresheets of each match as the “results manager.” “We don’t have any children. So we are quite independent and at least now, in our old age, we can travel and be together,” Rao says. Together, the pair sees the PKL as a compilation of all the ideas and work Rao has put into the game. “The only thing that can get better than this now is to see kabaddi played at the Olympics,” he says.
When Rao headed to the Caribbean in 2004, his wife did not accompany him and Rao was left by himself to adjust to the laid-back culture that threatened his disciplinarian nature. “There was one guy who used to drink beer when I gave them water breaks during practice. There was another one who’d bring his girlfriend along. Just before certain plays, he’d run to the side, have a quick smooch and get back on court,” Rao recalls, laughing. The entire time, the Caribbean dozen was oblivious to his cult status in kabaddi circles in India. When the West Indians finally came to India, they were stunned to see the Indian team and officials touch Rao’s feet in respect. “Rao man. You da big man,” they said to him.
Shortly before the tournament began, Rao did keep his promise. Just like thousands of tourists who end up outside Bachchan’s Juhu home, hoping to catch a glimpse of the star, the dozen found themselves staring at the bungalow. “Of course, they didn’t get to meet him. But they were still quite excited,” says Rao.