It is quarter past nine on a dull Sunday night in March. After a 4-course feast of football, rugby, Formula 1 and whatever else in between, there is officially nothing to watch. You flick through the standard off-peak programming that sports channels broadcast at the end of a hectic day of action. Liverpool-Arsenal from 1989? No thanks. The 2010 Winter Olympics official film? Pass. Golf? Absolutely not. As the print on your switch-channel buttons is being worn away by the blunt force of your thumbs, you are beginning to lose hope.
Suddenly, something catches your eye. You had never heard of it before this arduous search for something – anything – to watch. “Pro Kabaddi”. It is worth a shot, you think to yourself. Nothing could have prepared you for the sheer chaos you were about to witness. Bodies smashing into each other, tackles flying, brutal collisions, with no ball, flag or finishing line in sight. It is not a combat sport, because the players do not seem to be trying to knock the opposition out cold. There is a skirmish and a scramble, all in the pursuit of one goal, a goal which is not immediately clear to you. In fact, you have no idea of any of the rules of this bizarre game. But you do not care. You are hooked.
“Not only is it a thrilling sport, it is also being used to challenge social norms.”
What you are actually watching is a form of kabaddi, a sport which is massively popular in South Asia, particularly in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. The game has been a regular feature at the Asian Games – a quadrennial multi-sports event akin to the Olympics – since 1990, and the fourth Kabaddi World Cup took place last year, with Pakistan emerging as champions. Registering 1.1 billion viewers over the course of the 2018/19 season, India’s Pro Kabaddi League (PKL) competes with cricket’s Indian Premier League (IPL) for the title of India’s most popular sport. Given its high acclaim among approximately an eighth of the world’s population, it is surprising that kabaddi is relatively unknown to Western audiences. Not only is it a thrilling sport, it is also being used to challenge social norms. And, unfortunately, kabaddi has also been used as a political tool.
Upon first viewing, one may think the rules are rather complicated; in fact, they are quite simple. There are two teams, consisting of seven players each, on opposite sides of a rectangular court or field. The attacking team nominates one player, known as a “raider”, to cross to the other team’s half and tag as many opposition players as possible, all the while chanting “kabaddi, kabaddi”. In order to score points, the raider must return to their territory without taking a breath or being caught by opposition players, known as “defenders”.
If the raider is caught, the defending team earns a point. Similar to dodgeball,all tagged players are eliminated, but when the defending team scores, a player is “revived” and allowed to return to the game. If a raider manages to successfully tag all the players in one play, an “all out” is called, and the attacking team is awarded two extra points. The defending team is then restored to full strength. Each raid has a 30-second time limit. The game is played over 20-minute halves with a 5-minute break between periods. This is the standard version of kabaddi, but there are many variations on the sports. Punjabi kabaddi, for example, incorporates the same basic rules as the standard version, but is played on a circular court instead.
Kabaddi is a sport deeply rooted in the mythology of the Indian subcontinent. Some speculate that the game has prehistoric origins, as it served to train humans in the essential survival skills of self-defence and hunting. The Indian epic poem, Mahabharata, also offers clues to the genesis of the sport. Seen as an important source of the development of Hinduism, the poem depicts a military operation that is noted by scholars for its resemblance to kabaddi. Whatever its beginnings, kabaddi became a crucial aspect of the region’s culture; Indian gurus used the sport as physical exercise for their pupils.
“The sport has become a valuable cultural asset to Asian communities.”
The rules of the sports were finalised and published in India in 1923, and exhibition games at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin marked kabaddi’s first appearance on the international stage. While it is still primarily played in South Asian countries, immigrants from the Indian diaspora have spread kabaddi to many other nations. The England national kabaddi team was formed in 1992, and there are currently 32 countries in the International Kabaddi Federation, including the United States, France, Japan and Kenya. The sport has become a valuable cultural asset to Asian communities in these countries.
Kabaddi is also being used to promote significant social change. Terre des hommes, a Swiss organisation for children’s aid, has founded a project which encourages young girls in West Bengal to play kabaddi. According to their website, the organisation has set up a local kabaddi league and runs workshops on gender issues, both of which “encourage the girls’ life skills, participation and independence” and protect these vulnerable children from “trafficking and unsafe migration”.
However, like most sports, kabaddi is occasionally caught up in politics, as demonstrated by last year’s Kabaddi World Cup held in Punjab, Pakistan. India refused permission for its players to participate in the World Cup, but an Indian team did end up competing at the tournament, finishing as runners-up. Since the Mumbai attacks in November 2008, relations between India and Pakistan have been on a knife edge. The attacks, which were carried out by Pakistani militants, led to India cutting bilateral cricket ties with their neighbours. Since then, these tensions spilled into other sports, with Indian authorities ordering a freeze on sporting contacts, and in 2019, a Davis Cup tennis tie between the two nations was moved from Pakistan to Kazakhstan. It is tragic that kabaddi, a sport which unites countries in the Indian subcontinent, has been mired by diplomatic tensions.
“It also leaves little room for playing conservatively – taking risks is an essential part of raiding, and the high stakes involved make it a heart-stopping watch.”
Nonetheless, kabaddi is a thoroughly engaging and entertaining sport. Although the simplicity of its rules means it runs the risk of becoming little more than a “moments factory”, the sport does well to blend athleticism and agility. It also leaves little room for playing conservatively – taking risks is an essential part of raiding, and the high stakes involved make it a heart-stopping watch.
But discovering these kinds of unorthodox games is always a treat for any sports fan. It is a reminder of why sport is so successful in capturing the imagination of so many people. You do not need to understand the intricacies of the game, you do not even need to know the rules; merely getting caught up in the swell of drama and excitement is all you need to fall in love with a sport. So go ahead and take a chance on kabaddi. It might not resonate with you, or you might find a new favourite sport, joining the millions of die-hard supporters who chant in unison the name of the game they so enjoy: “kabaddi, kabaddi.”