Kabaddi season is around the corner and given its rising popularity in the past five years, this season is more exciting than ever. In fact, the popularity of Kabaddi has grown so much that the finale of Pro Kabaddi League Season 5 was the most watched non-cricketing event on television. Vivo Pro kabaddi League starts from October 5, and ahead of that, Men’s Health caught up with two star players of Pune’s home team, Puneri Paltan, Girish Ernak and Nitin Tomar. In this candid chat, the two talk to us about everything that goes into the sport, it’s rising popularity among the urban, cricket-loving crowd and the sport earmarking a space for itself in the wide gamut of sports leagues...
Kabaddi has emerged out of school playgrounds and has become a competitive sport. It is now in its sixth season. What, according to you is the scope for the sport going further?
Girish Ernak: Pro Kabaddi League has made Kabaddi a game to yearn for and youngsters are now willing to play Kabaddi. Apart from creating awareness about the game, Pro Kabaddi League (PKL) has also given Kabaddi the much-needed glam quotient, which has helped Kabaddi grow in India. In season four of PKL, there were only eight teams, in season five the number of teams increased to 12. This shows that there is a rise in demand and fan following for the sport. In addition, school level kabaddi championships like KBD Juniors is popularising the sport amongst children in both rural and urban areas. With so many corporates having their own franchise in Kabaddi, the rising awareness about the game and increasing fan following, I am sure that Kabaddi will soon take over cricket and become India’s favourite sport.
Nitin Tomar: First of all, I am lucky to have witnessed the great and unforgettable journey of Kabaddi, the game that I love so much. PKL has made the sport popular, due to which franchises are also promoting Kabaddi at the grassroot level. Kabaddi is being competitively played in other countries like Iran, Korea, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Japan, Kenya and Thailand and these countries have made great progress in Kabaddi in major international tournaments. Bangladesh and Iran have commenced their own Kabaddi league to nurture the sport more. Countries like England and Argentina have also embraced the sport and made their debut in Kabaddi World Cup 2016. Gradually, Kabaddi is making a mark all over the globe and going further, I foresee a very bright future for the sport, not just in India but worldwide.
Big names like Anand Mahindra are supporting the League. How about player remuneration, given it’s still not as popular a sport as cricket is…
Girish Ernak: Gone are the days of India being a one sport country. People have started watching various other sports, and leagues like Indian Super League (ISL), Premier Badminton League (PBL) and Pro Kabaddi League have brought this change. As far as Kabaddi is concerned, with PKL, people’s perception of Kabaddi has changed. It is no longer a sport played in the rural areas; people across the country love the sport and play it. As far as player remuneration is concerned, I agree that Kabaddi players earn less than cricketers, but if you see the graph of players’ salaries from season 1 to season 6 of PKL, there has been a drastic change. This year in season 6 auction, the highest bid was made for ₹1.51 crore, which is a huge sum. Two players were brought for a whopping sum of ₹1.15 crore. This shows that the remuneration is increasing substantially.
Nitin Tomar: Kabaddi is the second most watched sport in India after cricket. Since 2014, we have seen a drastic change in people’s perception about the sport. PKL is a platform for all the talented Kabaddi players to show their skills. Today a lot of youngsters are considering a career in Kabaddi, with an aim to make a mark first in PKL and then enter the Indian National Team for major tournaments. If you look at the season 6 auctions, the bids were made for huge sums. I strongly believe that players do get remunerated highly. I am one of top five players who have crossed the ₹1 crore mark in Season 6 auction. The overall PKL season 5 sponsorship income has increased by 320%, which says a lot about the promising future of the league.
A big League game comes with its perks. How have you guys taken the celebrity status that’s attached with such popularity?
Girish Ernak: All of us at some or the other point have aspired to be successful and famous. But the most important thing is to not be carried away by the glamour and fame and deal with it without losing one’s ground. It is important to stay humble and focused.
Nitin Tomar: Ever since I was a kid, I have seen a lot of sports personalities and celebrities for whom people were crazy. These stars were always humble and acknowledged their fans. My village, Malakpur in Uttar Pradesh, is known for wrestlers and the village has produced 12 international level players in wrestling. One important life lesson that I have learnt from them that no matter what heights you achieve, always be humble and acknowledge the ones who stood by you in your times of struggle; provide a helping hand to the ones who are struggling and always be kind to your fans, they have made you who you are today. I believe that the key to handling success is to stay grounded and focused, no matter what, as this will help one in earning respect. Currently my only aim is to excel in the sport and perform to the best of my abilities.
There’s a wide range of spectators - both rural and metropolitan - do you feel you’re doing your bit to popularise the sport more among the urban audience, especially the youth?
Girish Ernak: With PKL, urban India has got to know and understand Kabaddi better. PKL has packaged the league in such a way that it keeps the audience hooked. Kabaddi has become a nail-biting source of entertainment for urban India, especially the youth. Now, even top-rated schools in cities have introduced Kabaddi and train kids in Kabaddi. I believe in the power of giving and sharing knowledge hence I train the kids in my Kabaddi club in Kalyan with an aim to produce good players who can bring glory to the nation. It feels great to be part of Kabaddi’s growth story in the country.
Nitin Tomar: The significant growth of PKL defines the real success of the league in both urban and rural areas. When I read and attend Kabaddi tournaments in schools and colleges, I know that the game is here to stay and grow. Puneri Paltan conducts inter-school and inter-college tournaments and we visit these tournaments and motivate young participants to pursue the sport. This season, Puneri Paltan is also conducting an inter-corporate tournament to imbibe the sports culture incorporates through Kabaddi. It is endearing to know that the youth today is considering a career in Kabaddi and I feel privileged to be part of this amazing story that is inspiring youth to take up the sport.
What’s your fitness routine like?
Girish Ernak: Fitness routines pre and during the league are gruelling. Our focus is on maintaining fitness along with our usual training. We get up in the morning around 6.30am, do our fitness sessions on the running track, do certain agility training, go to the gym. Post which we have our breakfast and rest for some time. In the evening, we have mat practice session again, where we devise our strategies for matches.
Nitin Tomar: Kabaddi is a contact sport that requires immense stamina and fitness. All the players at Puneri Paltan follow a strict routine. Along with our usual training, we especially focus on building stamina and agility. Our fitness instructor, Swapneel Hazare is an experienced trainer and he has helped all of us to be in good shape.
How is it different from the fitness routine required for another sport?
Girish Ernak: Kabaddi needs a player to focus more on strength, agility, reflexes and quick movements. This season of the league will last for three months, so it is important to stay fit throughout. Along with our usual training, we especially focus on building stamina and improving our fitness levels. As a practice, and as per our fitness trainers’ instructions, we have all decided mutually to avoid consuming certain food items and we all adhere to it religiously. Kabaddi is a game that can at times get aggressive and make you restless, so learning to be calm and cool under pressure is also critical. For our mental well-being, we all do Yoga and meditation, which helps us in concentrating better on field.
Nitin Tomar: Kabaddi is an aggressive and fast-paced game where the movements of the players are very quick. It requires a lot of strength and stamina to be a Kabaddi player. During our fitness session, we do exercises that help us in building stamina, so that we do not succumb to injuries. Our fitness training includes activities like agility ladder, battle ropes, sprints, push-ups, gym and swimming. We also practice yoga, which helps our body to be flexible. Meditation helps us in keeping calm during tense situation in matches.
Who in the team works hardest during training?
Girish And Nitin: All of us in the team are very particular about our training. Our trainer, Swapneel Hazare makes sure that everyone in the team follows the fitness regime thoroughly. We spend almost 2-3 hours in the morning doing fitness exercise. Although everyone in the team works hard, Ravi, More GB and Akshay spend a lot of time in the gym. They are very particular about his routine and go to the gym even during off days. They also drag us to the gym.
How often do you guys practice?
Girish And Nitin: We practice everyday. The morning session focuses more on fitness and exercise to build stamina. During the evening session, we focus more on our skills like raiding, attacking, defending etc. We also work on our player combinations and strategies for the league matches.
The season lasts three long months… how do you boys plan to balance your diet and practice session between games?
Girish And Nitin: The secret to balancing your diet and practice is discipline. We strongly believe that without a set routine one cannot be a good kabaddi player. We religiously follow our fitness routine and diet plan even during off-season. Another important factor is self-control. There will be times when you would want to give in to the temptations and cheat, but not doing so will take you a long way. Our diet plan is well balanced with proteins, carbs, minerals and vitamins. In addition, the Puneri Paltan management is very supportive. They ensure that the players get the best infrastructure to hone their skills and are not too stressed by the everyday activities.
What’s the one tip you’d share with Kabaddi enthusiasts?
Girish Ernak: A wise man once said that ‘Practise makes a man perfect’ and I absolutely adhere by it. One move practised 100 times will be a threat to the opponent rather than 100 moves practised once. Players must spend time on practising each move to master it.
Nitin Tomar: In Kabaddi, concentration is critical. Players tend to be under a lot of stress during tense situations in the matches. A calm and peaceful mind helps the players to take the right decisions at the right time. Every Kabaddi player must also learn to be patient; the game can at times get aggressive and make you restless. Yoga and meditation can help players in building concentration.