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Sport

SUNS OF THE SOIL

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VILLAGE GOES GLOBAL: A riot of colour, song and dance (top) before the India-Pakistan final (above). The Pak team in prayer before the game (below, left) and (below) an eye on the sky

This summer, the firm slap on the thigh replaced the drone of the irrigation pump as the official 'sound' of rural Punjab. When the rustic raider got ready for combat with this typically male ritual, it echoed through the region almost like a gunshot drowning the harmless hum of the ubiquitous farming equipment.

A humble sport of these parts came 'home' in the form of a gargantuan World Cup and it took everything in its wake. Kabaddi enjoys cult status in Punjab, a wildly-popular version that has given birth to local myths and heroes. Such is its sweat-soaked, caked-inmud legacy, that it serves as the accepted test of a youth's character, resolve and strength. Success at the sport draws out the community's rustic affection for the local heroes, their laadi, their jeeta and nikka.

When the idea went global, Punjab boasted it rivalled all other sport in the country, IPL included. Evidence suggests it wasn't an empty boast.

Earlier, expectant crowds would play the guessing game as the 28-year-old unemployed 'Mangi' took a while showing up at the presentation area, or when a gratitude-filled Kuljeeta bent to touch an ageing politician's feet at the prize distribution ceremony. The buzz would be on the announcement to follow - a pair of blankets, a brand new cycle or the best bet, a crisp cheque for Rs 5, 001? "Chhetti dasso, ennu inaam ki milega?!" Money quickly changed hands in the crowds. People went home happy.

But despite the plebeian nature of this indigenous sport, few were shocked when this time the winners' trophy came plated in gold and the total prize money was an almost-obscene Rs 2.16 crore. The purse swiftly put other sports events in India in the shade. The Chennai Open tennis tournament offers prize money around Rs 1.8 crore, while for the football I-League, it is worth around Rs 1.5 crore. The Punjabi-style kabaddi World Cup proved bigger than all of that. And now, with an IPL-style league and auction planned by the organisers, this sport could easily figure among the top money-spinners, with willing international participation.

Nine teams from India, Pakistan, Iran, Australia, USA, Italy, the UK, Spain and Canada gave the tournament the vital international look. Even if most teams comprised expat Punjabi men - with the exception of Pakistan and newcomers Iran - the global flavour could not be missed.

The ease with which rustic sons-of-the-soil were transformed into stars overnight gave the indication of it being a well-oiled, cash-rich industry. Trooping out of five-star hotels, the 'foreign' participants were mobbed, barely being able to board luxury buses till scores of autographs had been signed and photographs taken. And like stars, they were sure of their place in the crowd that included fathers, uncles by the score, the doting grandmother with the unmissable moustache, the odd money-lender and the neighbouring village girl once secretly coveted, now with half a dozen kids in tow. Village Surakhpur in Kapurthala boasted of as many as eight players in the various teams. The star attraction, of course, was Mikhail Abdul Latif 'Meeka', a former US wrestling national champion of African-Mexican parentage who turned to kabaddi on the advice of an Indian wrestler-friend.

Legend has it that the word kabaddi is derived from kabad, which roughly means a bad activity. When a raider enters the stoppers' half with the refrain of 'kabaddi kabaddi kabaddi. . . .' he is warning stoppers of approaching danger. The game was devised to prepare the people of Punjab for recurrent raids in old times.

In a state where employment is slowly drying up, kabaddi offers a unique opportunity. Nearly 250-300 players go to Canada and the UK every year for interclub matches and nearly 300-400 are settled in Europe. "Some star players earn around $50,000 in one season in Canada alone," says respected Punjabi sports writer Principal Sarwan Singh. In the UK, top-level players are able to earn 25,000-30,000 pounds a year by playing on Sunday matches for a season of three months.

Of the 1,000 tournaments organised annually at village and block level in Punjab, nearly 100 offer a first prize of Rs 1 lakh. Before the World Cup, the biggest purse was $11,000 in Canada. In the US, it is $11,000 and in UK, 5,000 pounds.

The only true non-Punjabi team, Iran, with its rich wrestling tradition, takes to this form of kabaddi quite well, where wrestling is an integral part of the format. Played in 30 states and with an organised league, Iran seriously promotes this sport, even having their own version of if it called Zoo-Zoo.

Many also saw a political angle to the jamboore. By the time the tournament reached the final in Ludhiana, after travelling through half a dozen major centres in the state - Jalandhar, Gurdaspur, Patiala, Hoshiarpur, Sangrur and Bathinda - Sukhbir Singh Badal, the deputy Chief Minister and avid promoter of sport in the state, came to be seen as the face of the tournament. Placards bearing his portrait were being handed to the crowd as they milled towards the Guru Nanak Stadium. With something like Rs 6-crore being pumped into organising the event, this was seen by many as a manoeuvre to mobilise support ahead of elections due in a year's time.

Telecast live on PTC, a Punjab-centric TV channel, reports suggest that the TRP ratings for the kabaddi World Cup edged out that for the IPL. Of course, it helped that King's XI Punjab were more in the news for Yuvraj Singh's mood swings than their cricket.

You could also watch this event live in Canada and the US, and on giant screens in UK pubs. Interestingly, though Sharjah has neither a club nor a major player, it has the maximum viewership outside Punjab.

Understanding that the sport is a Rs 100-crore industry globally, supported largely by the mostlymoneyed Punjabi diaspora spread all over the world, the ambitious Badal has recognised its global draw and is toying with the idea of an international 'Kabaddi League' beginning soon. With a huge mass base in Punjab and Haryana, new academies are honing youngsters' skills professionally and the sport has a bright future. Many see the success of the World Cup as a rise in the Punjab sports department's gradation, and feel that talented players will get jobs and recognition.

The roads leading up to the arena in Ludhiana were choked hours before the final game. With 40,000 spectators inside roaring their approval at the pre-game celebrations - like all true Punjabis their celebrations knew no restraint - the India-Pakistan final took on a vibrant hue. Even actor Dharamendra, sitting in the spectators' gallery, sheepishly laughed as the gabrus broke into the famous Jat Yamla dance.

Kabaddi has its nuances - electric moves, surreal dodges and muscle power. Tales of such daredevilry make for great story telling. An entertaining sideshow of this sport is the commentary - high on metaphor, rhetoric and wit. Rooted in Punjabi culture, the commentators drew their idioms from folklore, literature and religion, but hardly any took time in sliding from the sublime to the ridiculous.

"Je kabaddi geet hai, ta commentary usda saaz hai (If kabaddi is a song, commentary is its music)," says Professor Sawaran Singh, something of a minor celebrity in the kabaddi circles. For over four decades, 'Professor' has spiced up the game with his witty, highpitched commentary, much in the tradition of South American football commentators who borrow from music, art, philosophy and literature to describe the game and who go "Goooooooaall!!" for an entire minute, only to discover that the strike has been disallowed.

The final between India and Pakistan was billed as, well, another India-Pakistan clash - high on hyperbole, intensity and history. As the neighbours from across the border began the raids, 'Professor' had this ditty for them: "Pakistan te aya Lahore da kehnda Changsyal da. Main Ranjhe de pind da, vekho bhi Heer no haath laan aa rehya hai, dole fadkde hoye - (Fed in Lahore, hailing from Changsyal, Pakistan, see that raider with rippling muscles is eyeing Heer. But, even I am from the land of Ranjha!)."

It seemed to work. Pakistan were swiftly outclassed.

And Mangat Singh Bagga - Mangi - India's captain, drove home to his village near Jalandhar not with a blanket or on a cycle, but on a shiny new tractor which he won for being the tournament's best stopper. Kuljeeta was best raider.

(With inputs from IP Singh and Ramandeep Singh)

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