Ever since its inception in 2014, the Pro Kabaddi League has been creating waves around the country. It is the second most-viewed tournament on television after the Indian Premier League.
The run-up to the Pro Kabaddi League Season 4, which kicked off on June 25, was marked by massive player auction and major overhaul of squads. Sportstar recently caught up with two former Pro Kabaddi League champions, Shabeer Bappu, who recently moved to Jaipur Pink Panthers after three successful seasons with U Mumba, and Jasvir Singh, who was retained by Pink Panthers for the fourth straight season. The two players with contrasting fortunes spoke about what the League has done for the sport and what they expect in the upcoming season.
Question: We had just one pro kabaddi season each in 2014 and 2015. What could be the logic behind having two seasons in a single year now? How does that affect a player? And do you think it will affect the viewership?
Shabeer: There are both benefits and losses with this new move. The disadvantage is that players hardly get any time to recover from their injuries. It’s just been a few months since the last season, and in a contact sport like kabaddi, there is bound to be serious injuries. Something like a knee injury can take a long time to heal.
Shabeer Bappu… “Pro Kabaddi League has opened up plenty of opportunities for the future generation.” –K. V. Srinivasan
Financially, it is great for us, players. We get to earn more with multiple seasons. The base price for the auction was also increased from Rs. 5 lakh to Rs. 12 lakh. Yes, we keep hearing concerns about the viewership. They (organisers) were concerned that the gap between the seasons was too much perhaps. Anyway, we won’t know that until this season gets going.
Shabeer, you work for State Bank of Mysore when not playing in the Pro Kabaddi League. And Jasvir, you work with the ONGC. Can you throw light on the kind of support that the PKL teams give their players during off-season? Who takes care of you, say if you suffer an injury, during that time?
Shabeer: It’s our department (company) that will take care of the medical expenses, unless the PKL teams want to do something about it. U Mumba paid all medical expenses for my injury even after the season. Usually PKL will take care of us from the time we join the training camp, which starts 1-2 months prior to the tournament, to the end of the season. Rest depends on the franchise. Some do it, some don’t, but there is no contractual obligation to help.
Jasvir: After the season, I go back to ONGC where they provide me all the facilities to train and prepare myself. I also represent them in tournaments. All the facilities are provided to us there. And for youngsters who aren’t working anywhere, there is always the SAI (Sports Authority of India). They provide whatever is required.
Pro kabaddi is played on the mat. Is it true that the chances of getting injured on the mat are higher than playing on sand?
Shabeer: It’s a faster game. Sometimes, probably because we are used to other surfaces, we do not get the same grip that we expect. Our calculations go wrong at times. And chances of slipping are also higher. It takes more time to recover from the injuries, as they are usually internal. You don’t bleed or anything, but you end up fracturing a bone or pulling a muscle.
Jasvir: There is a lot of difference between mat and sand. But now, players are slowly getting used to the mat and learning how to deal with it, resulting in lesser injuries than before. Now even in villages and towns they have started using mats, so the training is starting from early stages.
Shabeer, in U Mumba, you were with legends such as Anup Kumar and Rakesh Kumar. How has it helped you improve your game?
Shabeer: It was sad for me to leave U Mumba. I had so many great experiences being in that team. I learnt a lot there. The senior players would point out the mistakes during the game and while training. Their experience helped us keep a cool head even in tight situations.
One of the criticisms against the Pro Kabaddi League has been the constant shuffling of players. Last season we saw Manjeet Chhillar, the face of Bengaluru Bulls, move to Pune (Puneri Paltan); Rakesh Kumar of Patna Pirates switch to U Mumba. Now we have Shabeer joining Pink Panthers. Seeing their stars switch teams after every season, don’t you think it will affect the fan following?
Shabeer: Yes, that is true to a certain extent. This season we had no choice, as the Pro Kabaddi League followed the style of the IPL player auction. So, we had no option but to move. Each team could retain only two players and U Mumba chose to retain Rishank (Devadiga) and Anup (Kumar). Until last season, players could move as per their wish. Players chose to move for various reasons. Some moved for more playing opportunities, while others moved for financial reasons. It will affect the fans because some of them support players and not the team as such. But I guess that is the case in every sport. Economically, it is definitely good. But yeah, players who are auctioned cannot choose which team they want to go to.
Jasvir: Mumbai didn’t take Shabeer, so we took him. He is a senior player with great experience. And today it won’t affect the fans so much. You can always communicate to the fans that you have changed teams. All you need to do is update it in your Facebook account.
Jasvir, unlike other raiders in the League, you have a smaller frame. Yet you have consistently been one of the highest scoring raiders so far. What are your strengths?
Jasvir: Yes, compared to the others, I’m a little smaller, but I have fast movements to make up for it. I constantly move fast so that defenders don’t have time to settle down. I keep hustling. I don’t try for bonus points very often. Instead, I focus on my back-kick, which is my most effective weapon. For this, you have to keep practising and do a lot of hard work.
How has the Pro Kabaddi League changed the sport apart from increasing its popularity? How has the training or the diet changed for players?
Shabeer: There is no question that the Pro Kabaddi League has changed the game. It has taken the game from the fields and truly made it a pan-Indian sport. We are also recognised wherever we go. It also opens up plenty of opportunities for the future generation. Now a lot more players will be interested in taking up the sport. Already we see a lot of youngsters getting a chance to learn with the very best.
As far as professionalism goes, we have to be careful throughout the year now. We have to maintain our diet and train regularly because there are more tournaments. We are expected to be at our best.
Jasvir: They take care of our fitness really well. The pre-season training camp that lasts for almost one and a half months really gets us into top shape for the tournament. There are doctors, physios… they constantly take care of our needs. And during the off-season, the ONGC provides for whatever is required.
Who is the favourite to lift the Pro Kabaddi League title this season?
Shabeer: Every team is strong now due to the player auction. In the previous seasons, you had an idea of what to expect. Now, the squads have changed so much that we really can’t tell.
Jasvir: Everybody is working hard in the pre-season training camp and I think it will be a tough fight. We will definitely be geared up for winning it. Things didn’t go well for us in the previous two campaigns because we missed some key players due to injury. I was injured and could play only a few matches. It was the case with Rohit Rana too. It’s kabaddi, and injuries are a part of the game. But this season, we will come back strongly and definitely win the title.