By Dileep Premachandran
An India-Pakistan match with the desert sands of the United Arab Emirates as the backdrop. That too on a Friday. For a generation, that meant only one thing—cricket in Sharjah. It’s now over 18 years since India and Pakistan last played there. Sourav Ganguly had just taken over as India’s captain, as the match-fixing chickens started coming home to roost. Moin Khan led Pakistan. Shoaib Akhtar was the fastest, most exciting bowler in the world. It was a different time.
On Friday, June 22, India and Pakistan met again in front of a vociferous crowd. But this time, there weren’t the sounds of willow on leather, or leather on stump, just the chants of ‘kabaddi, kabaddi’. Sharjah’s stadium, which has seen better days, wasn’t the stage either. Instead, a fraction of those that once crammed into the Sharjah stands made their way into the indoor arena at the Al Wasl Sports Club.
Tucked away near Dubai Creek, the club founded in 1960 has always been known primarily for its football team, which a certain Diego Armando Maradona coached between 2011 and ’12, not long after he had presided over a poor World Cup campaign in South Africa. Maradona was sacked midway through his contract, though he used his time in the Emirate to get on to jewellery billboards in Kerala and indulge a lifestyle that teeters between lust for life and appetite for destruction, depending on which side of the moral divide you stand.
Maradona-style controversies were nowhere to be found as the six-nation Kabaddi Masters began with India and Pakistan facing off. Cricket or kabaddi, the mindset of those watching doesn’t change. Accountant or construction worker, the faces were contorted with emotion as the usual nationalistic slogans found voice before the game began. The players, who have crossed paths many times, seemed the least affected by it all.
That the event was even being played, so far from its pastoral roots in India, was a sign of just how much the sporting landscape has changed. Virat Kohli and his cricket team may still be the cynosure of most eyes, but there are definitely significant niches available for other sports. And few have caught the imagination like kabaddi, which has gone from village pastime to prime-time television, thanks to Star Sports, in the space of half a decade.
You can often see the disbelief in the players’ eyes, especially the ones who started out well over a decade ago in relative anonymity. Now, there are TV promos, endorsements, multi-million-rupee Pro Kabaddi League (PKL) contracts, five-star facilities and the kind of attention they wouldn’t have dreamt of as teens with stars in their eyes.
For those from other countries, such leagues and tournaments represent an even bigger leap into the unknown. Iran has a proud wrestling tradition, but didn’t start taking kabaddi seriously till a few years ago. South Korea’s finest initially schooled themselves with YouTube videos. The same was true of Laventa Oguta, the charismatic woman who coaches the Kenya side. Having played football and rugby sevens earlier, she stumbled across kabaddi while online.
The Argentines, a little downcast after the results the Albiceleste have had at the Football World Cup, have only about 100 players, most of them playing recreationally, but are hoping that TV coverage of this event will help spread the gospel. The Kenyans, whose strength and athleticism have taken the world of rugby sevens by storm, hope to make similar strides in a sport that is increasingly finding popularity in schools back home.
But on Friday night, everything and everyone else was relegated to the margins by the magnificence of one individual. If you take the history of any sport, you’ll find those with that extra millisecond of time and that extra half-yard of space that eludes lesser mortals. Johan Cruyff was one, Maradona another. You can see it in the way Kohli whiplashes a perfectly good ball to the cover boundary.
Ajay Thakur is in that class. Even if you know nothing about kabaddi—and many of those watching at Al Wasl didn’t—it was easy to see just why he’s special. A big man, he prowls around the court like a jaguar. The sudden acceleration and lunges had that feline grace, and his Pakistani opponents seldom had an answer.
Cruyff’s Dutch side was famous for its Total Football, with individuals who could slot into a number of roles if required. A generation later, there was Fernando Redondo, the fulcrum of a Real Madrid side that won the Champions League twice in three seasons. A playmaker with extraordinary vision, Redondo could also ruthlessly stifle the opposition when needed.
Thakur doesn’t have Redondo’s long locks or poet’s demeanour, but he’s the total package. When he wasn’t raiding and making it back to safe ground with albatross-like stretches of his arm, he was tackling Pakistan’s raiders, grabbing a leg here and a midriff there before pinning them down. And like all great performers, there was communion with the crowd as well. Playing to the gallery is so much easier when you can play that well.
At the end of it all, with India emphatic 36-20 winners, there was a warm embrace for one or two from the opposition. The politics is never far from the surface, whenever India play Pakistan, but men like Thakur recognise what it takes to make it to this level. The sacrifices tend to be the same, whichever side of the border you’re from, and there is one warrior’s respect for the other.
It may not have been the Sharjah of old, with the yellow mat very different from a field of green, but for one Friday evening, it felt just like old times.
Dileep Premachandran is a sports columnist for News18, The Independent, Mint Lounge and Arab News. He was formerly editor-in-chief of Wisden India.
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