Video: India’s captain Rani Rampal on growing up in Haryana and winning Asia Cup

Pune: It is no easy task being the national team captain at the age of 22. But Rani Rampal, captain of the country’s women’s hockey team, doesn’t seem to be intimidated by the task.

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“2018 is a very important year for us because the Commonwealth Games, World Cup and the Asian Games are there. All three are major tournaments and come only once in four years, so even the players are keenly waiting for these events,” she says at the sidelines of the National Five-a-Side Senior National Championship 2017​ in Pune.

This is the captain of a team that defied the odds to win the Asian Cup less than a month back. One would think she can afford a smile and bask in the glory a little bit. But Rani is back to doing what she loves doing most: Playing hockey. Only this time, a radical five-a-side mixed team format — where men and women play together in one team. “When you play with your male counterparts, you play hard and you improve your strength,” reasons Rani.

This article was first published in Firstpost

Perhaps her hard approach comes from her upbringing and a desperate need to be successful. “I want to work hard and help my family settle. I want to improve their condition and I can only do that by putting hard work into my hockey,” she says.

Growing up was tough for Rani who comes from a poor background. Her father was a horse-cart driver in Shahabad Markanda, a small town in the Kurukshetra district of Haryana. But money was only a part of the problem. “When I told my family that I wanted to play, my relatives and neighbours got to know (about my interest), and they said to my parents that I’ll bring a bad name to the house if they send me outside the house. I was too young to mentally handle all these,” remembers Rani.

While she admits economically it was a challenge to stick to hockey, she is quick to point out how senior players in the team and her coaches were a constant source of support. “It was very difficult financially to afford kits and shoes. But my seniors and my coach helped me a lot,” she says.

The tough hockey education made Rani competitive at a very young age. Perhaps, it is this quality, a never-say-die spirit coupled with the exuberance of the youth, that convinced the Hockey India decision-makers to bestow the captainship on her in 2017.

The forward played a key role as a leader and a player in India’s Asian Cup victory, but Rani doesn’t want her team to get too carried away. “Till now we’ve just competed in the Asian level. If we have to compete in the world level then we have to put more hard work into our game and show more focus. We will do all these in the forthcoming national camps,” asserts Rani.

The Indian team will face tougher challenges in the upcoming season. But under coach Harendra Singh and Rani’s stewardship, the teams looks best equipped to weather the storm.

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On the calm shores, a surfing revolution brews

At the first glance, all is calm at the Sasihithlu beach in Western Mangaluru. A local band is singing their rendition of the Pink Floyd classic ‘Wish you were here’, as the crowd, divided into music lovers and food enthusiasts, go about doing their things, oblivious to the gravity of the event that brought them to together-the Indian Open of Surfing 2017.

While the organisers call it ‘baby steps for the future’, there is optimism within the camp that the event will springboard India’s entry into the elite leagues. “I am hoping to find a sponsor to ensure I get the support, technically and financially, to improve my surfing,” says India’s youngest national surfing champion Aneesha Nayak, who like most others in the tournament, is hoping to secure sponsorship deals, while also winning the rights to represent the nation in World Championships.

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The second edition of the Indian Open of Surfing has attracted a host of sponsors, with Karnataka government contributing almost Rs 60 lakh, but most lifestyle brands and sporting goods manufacturers are still shying away from sponsoring athletes due to their lack of ‘marketability’.

“The surfers, barring the elite few, haven’t found individual sponsors yet,” said Ram Mohan Paranjpe, Vice President of the Sporting Federation of India. “But surfing presents an opportunity that most other sports don’t. The surfers like to make a statement both in and out of the water. The athletes have an appeal, a fearlessness about them, a charisma… something brands like to associate with. All they need is some exposure,” adds Ram, who is also a Go-Pro sponsored surfing photographer.

More than a sport

For a sport that is relatively new-popular oral accounts suggest Jack Hebner a.k.a the Surfing Swami introduced it in the Indian coasts in early 2000s-surfing and its off-shoot Stand Up Paddle (SUP) event, have seen a meteoric rise in popularity and tournaments today fetch more than 100 participants, mostly from the South Indian coast line of Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh.

But a surfing festival is beyond sports for a lot of people involved. The fest is a gathering of people who come to celebrate freedom in all forms. The Indian Open venue is a vibrant space, swarmed by mural artists, skateboarders, slack-liners and ‘Indi’ musicians, and these components have become as much a part of the fest’s attraction as the surfers are.

Samar Farooqui on the slackline.

Though Ram believes they are just an attraction to increase the foot-fall of the event, his mentor, the Surfing Swami, sees more.

“If you look at the origin of these games, they have roots in surfing. Back in my day, we did not have skateboarding or snowboarding but I used to ski. And I can tell you the techniques used were very similar,” says Swami.

Surfing is perhaps one of the few sports where the competition against is oneself and how well you can manoeuvre your body to the nature’s demands. “When you are in the water, nothing matters. You want to be alone, focused on riding the right wave. It is very much an individual sport. So in the evenings we have a bit of fun, listen to music and bond over,” says Janis, a surfer from Golden Beach Australia, currently helping his surfing friends set up a school in Tamil Nadu.

And slackliner Samar Farooqui, who travelled from Mumbai to take part in the festival, agrees with the surfers. “Essentially, all these sports are about balancing your body and mind. When you are on the board it is about adjusting your body to ride the wave. Similarly, on the line, we balance our body weight,” points out Farooqui, who also believes ‘non mainstream’ sports such as surfing or skateboarding, need to co-exist in a country like India to attract the audience.

Breaking hierarchies

While surfing is still far away from reaching the popularity levels of cricket or football, the sport has, in its small tenure, aided in shattering stereotypes and breaching class hierarchies.

“When I started, nobody in my family or neighbourhood wanted me to surf,” says multiple-time national SUP champion Tanvi Jagadish. “How could a girl be in shorts? How could a girl afford to be dark-skinned? I had to hide my surfing for a long time from my parents but today I’ve inspired many to pick up the sport,” adds the 17-year-old, with a beaming smile.

Janis, in his time in India setting up a surf school, has seen many celebrities and well-to-do ‘city folks’ hit the beach to learn surfing from the fisherfolks who have already mastered the art. “That is the best part of nature. On the wave, nobody cares if you are rich or poor. It’s just you and the wave,” he said, while acknowledging that the relationship was symbiotic, with the local lads now understanding the importance of education after meeting the celebrities.

While the socio-economic status of the nation might prevent millions from taking up what is still an expensive sport, according to Swami, India undoubtedly has the potential to produce ‘around thousand world class surfers’. “I’ve lived in Bali (Indonesia) and the majority of the population there are Indian immigrants from the yesteryear. If you see them surf, you will understand that it’s in the Indian genes to be successful in the water. I agree a lot of people in this country won’t be able to afford a board or time, but we are definitely capable of having some top talent,” says the surfing hermit, whose association with the country goes back to 1976 when he first travelled to India in the late Hippie era.

A breakthrough year

The 2017 edition of the Indian Open comes at a time when India has started making huge inroads in the world of surfing. In November 2016, Tanvi Jagadish and Sekar Patchai took part in the International Surfing Association’s SUP and Paddle board events. Tanvi, just 17 years old, also won the Bronze medal at the West Marine Carolina Club Stand Up Paddle Board race. Upcoming surfers like Aneesha Nayak and Sinchana Gowda have shown enough to suggest that the future of surfing in India is in great hands.

Surfing as a business enterprise has also seen drastic improvements with the surfing schools such as the Mangalore-based Mantra Surf Club, launching their own apparel brands. Mantra’s Thunder Monkey inspired the vibrant monkeys of Uttar Pradesh who sound like a thunder according to Surfing Swami, who aims to compete with international brands such as Quicksilver by offering similar quality clothing at affordable rates.

According to the officials of the Surfing Federation of India (SFI), the entry of new investors in the surfing scene and the improved support from state governments could help India host a World Championship as soon as in 2018.

The inflow of money will also help the federation send the upcoming surfers on exposure trips, which according Tanvi, will be necessary if Indians are hoping to make it to the big league. “It was very cold when I went to the USA. And I was not used to wearing so much protective suit. I struggled with my paddling,” said the SUP champion on her trip to USA in April.

In Maldives and Andamans, India has accessible and affordable locations to train their athletes and the SFI is already looking into these options to enhance the already impressive athletes. With Surfing being included in the 2020 Olympics and SUP to very likely feature in the 2024 Games, now is the time for India to sow the seeds for a fruitful tomorrow.

Head to Head: Dhoni v McCullum

Former Chennai Super Kings team-mates M. S. Dhoni and Brendon McCullum have a lot of things in common. Both started their international cricket as wicket-keepers but are, arguably, more known for their exploits with the bat. Both are phenomenal athletes who redefined batting with their hard hitting and exceptional running between the wickets.

And perhaps most importantly, the two are fearless leaders who changed the face of their respective national teams with an attacking, positive approach to cricket.

Yet neither of the cricketing revolutionaries will be captaining their sides when Rising Pune Supergiant (RPS) hosts Gujarat Lions in a potential play-off berth clincher. That doesn’t, however, take away the importance of both the stars. While RPS might boast of having Ajinkya Rahane, Rahul Tripathi and Australian Steve Smith in its ranks, it is still dependent on Dhoni to finish-off matches as was evident in the team’s last-ball win against Sunrisers Hyderabad (SRH).

Similarly, Gujarat has an interesting set of batsmen in its repertoire, but is still dependent on Bas running riots in the early overs and disrupting the balance of play.

Hence it is not surprising that teams’ form, much like the two stars’ this IPL season, has been inconsistent. RPS, with 10 points from nine matches, is currently fourth in the table while Gujarat with six, is two places below. Hence the pressure will be on Suresh Raina-led visiting team to snatch a win a stay in the hunt for a semi-final slot.

Pune, however, can’t afford to relax, with Kings XI Punjab, currently fifth on the table with 8 points, boasting a superior net run-rate.

Prior to his match-winning 34-ball 61 against SRH, Dhoni had scored just 61 runs from 73 balls in the entire tournament. Similarly, McCullum has shown glimpses of his destructive best – his quick-fire 72 off 44 balls going in vain against Royal Challengers Bangalore – but has struggled to find consistency. But big players know the perfect time to switch to another gear and Monday’s match in Pune, with play-off hopes still hanging in the balance, would be a befitting occasion for both the legends to spark up the cricket field one more time.

Expect fireworks!

Plotting the storm: The story behind India Baja 2017

“Not one recce,” Raj Kapoor, one of the architects of India Baja 2017, assures us. “We do something like 25 recces. If the route is 650 km long then every metre is mapped. Each driver has a route map which tells him metre-by-metre what to expect… where is the turn, what is the marker on the left, are there special features like trees around the region… Each and everything on the 650 km stretch is marked graphically and if you take the scroll notebook for the bike riders and open it, it will go close to about 50 feet.”

The story of India Baja, the nation’s first Dakar Challenge (the winner in the two-wheeler segment here automatically qualifies for the 2018 Dakar Rally in Peru), is about meticulous planning, years of fine-tuning and the sheer will of a bunch of enthusiasts that wants to mark India — a country still coming to terms with the potential of motorsports — on the world motorsport map.

“The India Baja is kind of a marker,” says Raj. “In terms of credibility, in terms of difficulty quotient, in terms of organisational excellence and global operating procedures, getting a Dakar Challenge is as good as it can get.”

The origin

It was a quiet period for rally in the country in the late 1990s, after the Himalayan Rally, an iconic event held in the Himalayan region between 1980 and 1990, and the subsequent Mountain Challenge had died down. “There was a lull and hence there was a desire to own the motorsport intellectual property, and the Raid de Himalaya was born in 1999,” recollects Raj, who had won the Gypsy Class and finished second overall in the inaugural edition of the Raid de Himalaya. (The event, incidentally, is the world’s highest rally-raid.) After the success of the event, Raj got together with Jayesh Desai, who was part of the organising team of the Raid de Himalaya, and founded the Northern motorsport.

The Northern motorsport started an autocross event under its banner in 2001 and later launched the Desert Storm Rally in 2003. “We started the Desert Storm and slowly built it up into the longest rally in India. And once we reached there, the next logical milestone was to try and emulate something that was at the pinnacle of cross-country rallying — the Dakar Rally,” recalls Raj.

To associate with the Dakar, India Baja had to make certain adjustments to the format it followed in its inaugural season. Baja rallies are conducted in two different formats: one is the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) format, governed by the cross-country rally championship regulations, which the Dakar follows, and the other is the American way of running the Baja, which is similar to the Baja 500 or the Baja 1000 events in Mexico. Basic difference between the two is that the American format runs day and night and has multiple drivers driving the same vehicle, while the FIA rule does not allow bikers in the night.

“Last year, we were trying to find a middle path between the two because the marathon concept is very exciting with multiple drivers sharing one car. So we were partly following that and partly the FIA rule. Now that we are a part of the Dakar Challenge, we are bound to follow the FIA rules. So no biker will race in the night,” informs Raj.

An intense challenge

The second edition of the India Baja will be held between April 7 and 9 in Jaisalmer, Rajasthan. Apart from qualifying for the 2018 Dakar Rally, the winner of India Baja will also get a ticket to the Sonora Rally in South Africa and the Afriquia Merzouga Rally in Morocco. The complexities of the Baja and the attractive prizes have drawn a host of international drivers such as Joaquim Rodrigues (Portugal) and Adrian Metge (France).

According to the organisers, the India Baja will be the most challenging rally in India till date. “I’ll give you a comparison to put things in perspective,” says Raj. “The Baja is basically running 1.5 days of competition. In those 1.5 days, it is doing 430 competitive kilometres and 150-odd transport kilometres. What it means is that, in say 36 hours, we are doing 430 km of competitive sport. In comparison, in the 1.5 days in Indian national rally championship, you do 70 km. In the Raid de Himalayas, over six days we do 600km. In the Desert Storm, over six days we do 730 km. So in comparison, the Baja is very intense.

“The amount of pressure on the car and the driver is very high because you hardly have any time to breathe and you are perpetually under pressure. That is what this entire game is about — to put a competitor under tremendous pressure on a terrain that is extremely hostile, and where the weather is absolutely against him and his machine. The weather is going to completely dehydrate you and affect your ability to think or focus. The machine is going to over-heat and it will be always under pressure. So how you manage to overcome these obstacles and challenges is the game.”

According to Raj, the entire format has been designed in such a way that only the fittest, the most experienced and the strategically brilliant driver with the most reliable machine can come through. But it is equally difficult for the organisers to stage the event, challenged as they are by a highly populated country.

“What gets done in South America, Africa and Europe with 50-70 people would require around 250 volunteers here. In India, because we have more population and higher density of towns and villages, we would need far more man power to be positioned at various points along the route to ensure that the route is sanitised and has no external influences coming in.

“Laws of the land do not allow us to have certain technology, so again technology is substituted with man power and more man power. We’ve been running an event in Rajasthan for almost 15 years and we understand how the local scenarios unfold on the ground. We know that at a certain time of the day there will be more influx of man power and human interference, so the security needs to be beefed up. Eventually, the aim is to try and replicate some of the regulations and safety requirements. And even then it’s not absolutely foolproof,” informs Raj.

Vehicle manufacturers have traditionally used motorsports to experiment with their designs and Raj is of the view that India Baja will offer them a great opportunity to test their machines. “All they learn in motorsport will find its way into production today, tomorrow or the day after. motorsport helps manufacturers figure out how reliable a particular research and design idea is – the kind of testing that happens in this condition is very difficult to replicate.”

While getting the Dakar Challenge tag was important, the organisers believe the event will only be a success if it can prompt Indians to start viewing motorsports as a mainstream sport. “People have never understood the method of entering the races, the related costs, the path of growth and the reward matrix. It’s always been hazy and people have always perceived it as something not possible by the majority, something expensive… If motorsport is adopted and there are proper guidelines and steps generated for everyone to enter and experience it at low cost and as well as less effort, the growth will be exponential. And there are methods of doing this — you can experience the sport in terms of karting, in the form of an autocross, it will cost less than Rs.10000 — in fact less than Rs. 5000. It’s perceived as something that is unattainable and that is not the case,” concludes Raj.

Simon’s sermon

18sc-simon-orchard

Bullish on the turf, near-eccentric with his podcasts and eloquent in his columns, Australian hockey star Simon Orchard isn’t exactly the fast car-chasing, hairstyle-changing, stereotypical modern day athlete. Not that he really cares for conformity. “What is normal?” Orchard asked recently in a >hard-hitting article he wrote for an Australian publication The Roar, while highlighting the need to embrace diversity in a sporting fraternity marred by homophobia.

THIS ARTICLE FIRST GOT PUBLISHED IN SPORTSTAR MAGAZINE

Orchard, a multiple medal winner with the Australian national hockey team, including gold at the Champions Trophy (2009 and 2012), the World Cup (2010 and 2014) and the Commonwealth Games (2010 and 2014), is a champion off the field too, vocal as he is on mental health and other social issues in a world where such topics still remain a taboo.

Orchard is in India playing for Jaypee Punjab Warriors in the 2017 Hockey India League (HIL). In a chat with Sportstar, the ever-lively Kookaburra star talked of his battle against anxiety and the need for professional athletes to have alternate career plans among others.

Excerpts:

Question: How does it feel to be back in India?

Answer: India is always a very nice place to come to. I enjoy playing in the HIL, and I love not only my team-mates but also the Indian people. They are always very welcoming and it’s great to be back here.

Jaypee Punjab Warriors’ first match this season did not go quite well — a 10-4 defeat to Dabang Mumbai. What do you think went wrong in the match?

Obviously it was a little disappointing. We had spent a lot of time discussing where we can improve. We had played some practice matches together, but there are very few teams of the quality of Mumbai. It was the first match of the tournament and there was a lot of pressure on the players, especially the young Indians who have come after a World Cup victory and would be pushing for a place in the senior team. There’s a lot to play for, and the competition is so close this season. A lot of teams have improved and if you are not at your best you could end up being beaten 10-4 or 10-0, as UP Wizards defeated Kalinga Lancers.

The 10-4 scoreline looks like something out of a badminton match. What is your take on the HIL rule of counting a field goal as two goals? Is it making the game more attractive?

I think it’s a great innovation by the Hockey India League. I personally feel that field goals are much more important than the penalty corner goals, and I know a couple of drag-flickers will disagree with me, but I like the rule change. At the end of the day, if it leads to bigger scorelines and more excitement for the people who follow hockey, then that’s great. It (HIL) has opened up recently, but at the start of the tournament there were some low-scoring matches. I like to see more attacking games and a shoot-out than a 1-0 victory.

Would you consider 2016 as a disappointment for the Australian national team, considering you were one of the favourites to win the gold at the Rio Olympics? Or is too early to press the panic button?

I think, at the Olympics — which a lot of people are not aware of — teams (Argentina and Belgium) which were ranked sixth and seventh in the world (Argentina is No. 2 and Belgium No. 5 today) actually played for the gold medal. In a lot of sports around the world, you would be hard-pressed to find teams ranked sixth and seventh playing in gold medal matches. It goes to show that the strength of international hockey is probably at its peak with Argentina and Belgium becoming superpowers, and India dangerously close to being a competitive unit.

We are of course disappointed (about missing out on a medal at the Olympics). We just had too many players who didn’t perform when it was needed. There’s a new hockey coach now. So in the next 12-24 months leading to the World Cup in India, there might be some changes in the Australian team.

The Indian team won the 2016 Junior World Cup, and there is a feeling that the current crop of Indian players is the best we have had in the last decade. What is the general word about India in the international circuit?

It’s scary how much talent, how much muscle, skill, flair and technical ability the Indian players have. Just to watch Indian players trap and dribble the ball is so exciting. I think it’s in the Indian culture to dribble. It’s called the ‘Indian dribble’ for a reason. The junior coach said that the current crop of Indian players, especially the juniors, is stronger than others in the world. There are some really good coaches involved in the Indian system for the last 3-4 years. To have someone like Roelant Oltmans, who has been here more than most international coaches, will bring consistency to the senior Indian team.

It’s a big jump from the junior team to the senior level. Barring Harmanpreet (Singh), hardly anyone from the junior team has been consistently playing international hockey for the senior side, and it will be important for players like Armaan Qureshi and Varun Kumar to work hard.

What brings foreign players to HIL? Is it just money, because Florian Fuchs recently said he was using the HIL money to pay his tuition fees? How different is HIL in comparison with say a hockey league in Europe?

If you are talking about money and how it compares (with Europe), then it’s phenomenal. I think in Europe you would be lucky to get maybe USD 30,000 for six months, while here some players like Florian (Fuchs) are getting almost USD 100,000 for six weeks. So it is beneficial to a lot of young hockey players who don’t probably get a lot of funding in their home country, and I guess it is one reason why they come to India.

Money aside, I love the experience. As I said in the beginning, I love the people and I always have a smile on my face when I’m in India. I love the culture. I love the fact that you can talk to a Muslim one day, a Sikh the next day or a Hindu another day. They all combine to make this really flamboyant country. Every day you get out in the street in India, you see something new — sometimes sad, sometimes exciting, sometimes just astonishing, but there are always different things to see.

In 2015, you took some time out from hockey to address anxiety-induced issues. It was a very brave move, especially at a time when things were heating up with the Rio Olympics round the corner. When did you know you had to take a break and how did that period help you?

Thank you, firstly. I used to get quite upset and my team-mates also suggested that I take some time out from the game. It was very important for the preparation for the Olympics. Looking back, I wouldn’t change anything. I really enjoyed the time-out and it gave me a mental break, which helped me make it to the Olympics. I don’t know if I would have made it otherwise. And it was probably the fairest thing not only for me but for my team-mates as well, as I couldn’t continue to show up for training and be totally committed. We were working so hard, we trained every day, we were in it together and I just felt I was letting people down as well as myself by not being in the right frame of mind.

It (the break) did a lot of good to other people as well. The message got delivered to plenty of people out there and it was inspiring, I guess. A lot of people contacted me and shared stories, shared information, confided in me… It (mental health issue) is something not talked about; something that’s kept very much behind closed doors.

If you had just taken a break, many of us wouldn’t have known it was due to anxiety. It is only >when you blogged about it that the rest of the world got to know about it. How important was it for you to write on it?

It wasn’t 100% necessary, I guess. But putting it on a page helped people access it. There are a lot of people out there who are maybe struggling with different issues and it sort of gave them something to identify with.

How was it coming back? A discussion on mental health, especially in sports, is seen almost like a taboo. Was it seen by your peers and others as a sign of weakness?

If you can go through anxiety and come out stronger, then there are not too many things people can say. At the end of the day, I had the confidence that my team-mates would understand and accept it. Not only accept it, but also invite it. People who don’t, I don’t have any time for them. Yes, there are people who view it as a sign of weakness or frown upon it, but as far as I’m concerned, those people don’t matter.

Sports people have a lot of benefits, a lot of things going right for them. But it can happen to anyone. Mental health doesn’t discriminate, I guess. It doesn’t care if you are an Indian or an Australian or Muslim or Christian or female or male… It can strike anyone at any time, and it’s a really hard state to be in, especially for young people.

You recently wrote a hard-hitting piece on homophobia affecting sports. How do you think sports can combat this problem?

As is the case with some issues, some people see them as a taboo, which I don’t understand. For whatever reasons, India is probably quite similar to Australia (in homophobia). It’s like mental health and is a topic that is not discussed often or is always frowned upon.

Homophobia in sport is very much present. In Australian hockey system, there are gays, lesbians and bisexuals. They are there in the Indian system too. But for whatever reasons, they have to hide who they are, or hide their true self and that is disappointing. With understanding, we can remove the taboo. More people should start conversations and discussions on the topic and make it easier for people to accept who they are. There are a lot of people in sports out there suffering because they don’t accept themselves as who they are because there is a stigma attached to it. At the end of the day, a lot of people don’t care about your sexuality. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t change you as a person. It doesn’t make you any less or more than the others.

You are a journalism and PR student. Do you fancy yourself as full time writer?

Yeah, I study journalism and PR in Australia. That’s what I want to do. At the moment, I’m writing a little bit as a freelancer for a few different publications in Australia. I like discussing topics which aren’t otherwise written about. I guess some of it rubs people the wrong way, but that’s what being a journalist is all about.

Tell us about the importance of having alternate career options…

Extremely important, and this should probably be the next big step for Indian hockey. The players spend a lot of time playing hockey, travelling, living with one another… Hockey is life. I was talking to some of my younger team-mates. They sometimes finish schooling, they don’t have any tertiary education, they spend a lot of time playing hockey. That’s all great, but you are only one injury away from your career being over. One bad tournament away from not being selected, one change of coach away from not being involved in the game any more. Then all of a sudden a lot of people lose their identity.

I think in India, it’s extremely important that someone identifies and explains to a lot of these young guys that although hockey is important you need something else because hockey doesn’t last forever. There will be a time when you are a little older, a little slower and you will need to leave the hockey stick and maybe go and work somewhere else. It is a great system here and the Indian players can get jobs in the police, or railways or air force, but that’s not for everyone.

There will be a lot of other guys still left trying to make their way in the world and that can lead to what we talked about earlier — mental health problems. It could lead to potentially really bad outcomes.

How did you come up with the idea of NaanUpInHere (a podcast on HIL with fellow Australians Mark Knowles, Matt Gohdes, Jacob Whetton and Tristan Clemons)?

 

It is a crazy idea and the more we think about it, the more we wonder what we are doing. But we are having fun. I guess the idea initially was to try and provide a platform for the Punjab Warriors players and hopefully other players as we go along, to contribute anything really funny, silly, educational, informative that will help establish a connection with the fans. It has been fun and it does take your mind off hockey.

At the end of the day, we are here to do a job and hockey comes first. That’s why sometimes our podcasts are little bit delayed, or why we are quiet for a few days or few weeks. But when there is some time off and when everyone’s in a good mood we are up to stupid things such as scaring people in our team. It brings a little bit of lightness to the Hockey India League. For us it does, at least.

Does having so many Australians in the same team help?

Having Australian players and an Australian coach (Barry Dancer) makes it comfortable. We are few less Australians now as compared to other seasons when we were pretty much all Australians. We have a few Dutchmen (Robert van der Horst, Mink van der Weerden) and an Englishman (Mark Gleghorne) as well now. And that’s great; always great to have some diversity in the dressing room. We (foreign players) don’t just follow each other around. We don’t share rooms. Off the field, that’s our great strength. And on the field, yeah, knowing how each other play is probably beneficial for our team.

You are one player who really seems to be soaking up as much as you can during your stay in India. Any wish list for 2017?

Another HIL title — for everyone in the Punjab region. This could be my last time here, so I want to make the most of every situation. I really want to try some street food, but I’m unsure if I will get sick. We had a coconut the other day off the street. Chopped it right in front of us… And we woke up next day feeling really energised. I have never been to the Taj Mahal, so maybe I will try to spend some time at one of the best landmarks in the world. I have really enjoyed my time here, made some really good friends and I would like to think that I have made some impact on a lot of Indian players and hopefully they’ve enjoyed everything I’ve tried to offer.

Does the Kabaddi World Cup really matter?

On 22nd October, Twitter India erupted, yet again, about a non-cricket sport. But unlike the day when Bengaluru FC won the hearts of Indian football fans by qualifying for the AFC Cup finals, the Twitter trend seemed to be rather ‘influenced’ by genuine social media celebrities a.k.a ‘influencers’. From Sachin Tendulkar to random films stars (read Abhishek Bachchan), everybody ‘big’ on Twitter was talking about it.
Anyway, India won a World Cup and that is certainly reason enough to bring out the tri-colours and wave them with our inflated 55-inch chests. Yes, WE BECAME KABADDI WORLD CUP WINNERS. AGAIN.
But let these facts sink in as well. Yes, there is something called a Kabaddi World Cup. It was last played in 2007 and was won by India. It happened in 2004 as well. That was won by India too. Since 2010, Badal government in Punjab has been conducting unofficial ‘circle style’ Kabaddi World Cups in Ludhiana and we have been winning all of those tournaments too. Yes (in case you were wondering), there are other countries who can play the game. No, there was no Pakistan (who are apparently the only nation to have come close to challenging us) in the tournament. No, there was no Canada either (wondering where those Punjabis go to?).
So why was India winning a Kabaddi tournament a big deal? A game in which our team has lost only once in the last 25 years. How is this victory anything bigger than one of our athletes winning a gold in South Asian Games (yeah that boring tournament where India defeats everyone and wins everything)?

SAG medal list
Sorry for sounding hyper critical. Let me get this straight. Kabaddi is a game I’ve recently learned to love and respect. And yes, considering how poor we have been in most sports, it’s certainly nice to see our men dominate a game. But as a sports journalist, and most importantly as a sports enthusiast, I can’t help but wonder if this sudden overload of Kabaddi is just a bid by a TV channel to tap into potential (which yields TRP and money) of a game. A sport that they own most rights to and to give them credit, a game they have most certainly helped revive.
I was a huge fan of Pro Kabaddi League (PKL) when it arrived. In a country like India, there is a desperate need to promote ‘non cricket’ sports. Kabaddi is a traditional game that has roots within the country and Star Sports packaged it into a product that was certainly TV friendly. Suddenly new stars were born and people were talking about Kabaddi. Brilliant. Then they decide to make PKL biannual. Not so brilliant but whatever. If Fast and Furious can have (what 8?) sequels, surely PKL can survive a little bit of overdose. But after first three seasons that saw a steady surge in TV viewership, the results of PKL 4 left a lot to be desired. Patna Pirates won the tournament again and the organisers had us believing that the tournament was a success especially in terms of TV viewership. And then out of nowhere, they decide to revive the Kabaddi World Cup.
So why bring back the Kabaddi World Cup?
BECAUSE there is nothing like a World Cup to widen the reach of the game. No, I’m serious. It’s good for the game that other nations are playing it. It’s still far from becoming an Olympic game (you need atleast 75 nations playing the game to be considered in Olympics) but like Manjeet Chhillar explained prior to the tournament, this is the closest this generation of players will come to an Olympic medal. Strong performances from the likes of Thaliand and Kenya show there is definitely a future to the game in which India is head, shoulders and waist above everyone else. Iran will challenge us in future World Cups (which will apparently be conducted every two years) once they find quality raiders. But then everyone has talked about these things. This is clearly what the organisers would want you to believe.
Before I make some wild predictions (accusations or whatever), I must admit I do not know these details and would love to get more information.
1) When was it decided to start/revive the Kabaddi World Cup? We journalists started hearing about it this year around the time PKL season 4 was going on. That’s June and definitely too late to decide on something as big as a World Cup surely.
2) TV viewership of PKL 4. I don’t know anything about it. What I do know from the little research I did online is that Star Sports and Mashal Sports (a start-up by Anand Mahindra and Charu Sharma) was very vocal about the TV viewership in the first three seasons of PKL. Every time they have had press conferences to talk about its increasing reach yet in June, NOBODY talked about it. Maybe because it was already a given thing? I doubt it considering the skepticism around the League’s plan to make the event biannual. A rise in PKL numbers would have certainly made news considering how the League would be looking to woo new sponsors.
3) How were the TV (online) rights for the World Cup decided? Was there a formal bidding? It almost seemed a given that Star Sports would be broadcasting the event. Why? Do they own it? If Kabaddi is as popular as Star claims it to be in TV, I’m sure Sony ESPN or Ten Sports would have liked a shot at it. Do we have any details of the bidding war that Star Sports won? I am sure International Kabaddi Federation wouldn’t have been naïve as to just give Star Sports the right to the tournament. But it remains to be seen whose idea it was. Did Star Sports play a role in it?
Listen, I have my reasons for doubting. This is the T&C for the Kabaddi World Cup website.
So the way I understand, somebody got the idea of having a Kabaddi World Cup immediately after PKL 4. Nobody knows whether the PKL season was a success but here is what a Kabaddi World Cup would bring.

TV channels broadcasting Kabaddi
i) Extra coverage for the game. With 7 TV channels taking the event across the world, news channels were forced into talking more about it. Although PKL had an array of international players, it was always seen as something within in India. Nothing like a WC to help brand Kabaddi grow. And who benefits? Owners and stakeholders, of course. Who owns the majority stake in Kabaddi? Hmmm.
ii) Kabaddi World Cup offered a key opportunity to sustain interest in the game by offering something new to the audience. Before PKL 4, as journalists do, I had interviewed players and organisers about the logic of making this league twice a year. “Won’t it be too much?” I asked. (READ)
The common logic seemed to be that the organisers were afraid that the audience will lose interest between the seasons. See, between Indian Premier League (IPL) there is international cricket going on. Between ISL seasons there is a LOT of football being played. But between PKL season there was no Kabaddi. Atleast nothing they could watch. To sustain the interest in the sports, to keep Kabaddi trending, it is important that Kabaddi makes its way into TV (and other media) regularly.
So they made it two seasons per year. Now I do not know if a lacklustre season 4 is the reason for the introduction of Kabaddi World Cup or whether it was always in the pipeline, but this sure does help sustain the interest in the game. An international tournament and 2 PKL seasons spaced out between 12 months would be perfect. World Cups will be played every two years. And with the nationalist sentiments on an all-time high (did you know about Kapil’s hyper reaction to a question on Pak’s absence in the WC), the Kabaddi World Cup made all the sense.
Coming back to the point. Kabaddi WC isn’t that big a deal. You and I were made to believe it is a big deal by a company that has huge stakes in the game. India always wins the event. There is no country that can beat us (yes Korea did and Iran led but c’mon). What made the event special is very clever marketing.
If Sachin, Kapil, Sehwag and random actors talk about a certain event, it is bound to become something extravagant. That’s the power of social media and people with followers. If these guys tweet about Dutee Chand winning a Gold medal in SAG, Twitter will go crazy and tri-colours will be out again. But the question is, will they?
*Breathes*
India won the World Cup, it’s worth celebrating but you need to know that the team didn’t do anything extra ordinary. You, like me and everyone else, are a victim of a herd mentality, which a certain company has tapped into. We are victims of a beautifully orchestrated marketing plan. Yes, it was great to see all our Kabaddi superheroes come together to be nation’s warriors. Why do you think DC made a Justice League movie after all that Batman and Superman films?
That said, you can’t help but admire the think-tanks. They had us all convinced that something huge had happened.
What Star is doing isn’t necessarily bad though. Reliance’s interest in Indian Super League (ISL) or Star TV’s love for Kabaddi shows there is potential money in alternative sports in the country if you are willing to package it right and have a long-term goal. Hopefully this will result in sports-persons getting some much needed attention.
As always with my blog posts, please feel to correct me where I am wrong. I work as a journalist for an organization but the article (rant) has nothing to do with my employers. In other terms, please don’t sue either of us.

Pink Panthers open up on Pro Kabaddi and team’s chances

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.

Excerpts:

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.

Enter a caption

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 Singh… “Professional Kabaddi League has helped us take care of our fitness well.”   –K. V. Srinivasan

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.

Amir Khan: Punching above his weight

amir khan guardian.jpg

Image Source – Guardian

Why does a boxer, an Olympic medallist and one of the best professional light/welterweight pugilists in the world today, want to jump two weight categories up to fight one of the most dangerous fighters in the world?

“To go down in history as one of the greatest,” says the former World champion, Amir Khan, in a telephonic interview from San Francisco, where he is currently training for his first middleweight bout, against Mexican Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez, scheduled for May 7 at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.

Amir Khan (31-3, 19 KOs) decided to take on Alvarez (46-1-1, 32 KOs) after Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao turned down offers to fight him.

“Everybody in the world knows they (Mayweather and Pacquiao) refused to be in the ring with me. So, I had to jump two categories to get the next big challenger, who was Canelo. But I believe I belong in this position, fighting the best people in the world,” affirms Khan.

A British of Pakistan origin, who won a silver medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics when he was only 17, says, “Nobody ever expected me to stay. So many people started boxing with me at the same time, but they all quit. I’m the only one who stayed.”

As a kid, Amir was hyperactive and his father enrolled him in a local boxing gym when he was eight to calm him down. “As soon as I stepped into the ring in the gym, I smelled sweat, I smelled blood. I saw the punching bags being punched. I heard voices of people being hit, and I said, ‘Wow, this is a nice place to be in! I love this place,” he reminisces.

Amir’s career has been one continuous story of the boxer proving people wrong. When he went to the Athens Olympics, nobody gave him a chance.

“I’ve always been an underdog, and I thrive on it. So, when I went to the 2004 Olympic Games, they said I will have to fight (against) very big, powerful guys. I reached the final and my opponent was a former Olympic champion, who had like 300 fights under his belt. He defeated me in a very close fight. But those people who said I was going to get blown away were all proved wrong,” Amir says.

The Olympic success, in a way, would go on to define Amir’s boxing career. He turned professional in 2008 and quickly moved up the ladder with his speed, aggression and never-say-die attitude, winning many fans too in the process.

Amir Khan… “People are writing off my chances and that gives me extra motivation. It brings the best out of me when I’m the underdog. I always believe in myself.” – Getty Images

His 12-round WBA light welterweight title defence against Marcos Maidana in 2010, which was adjudged the ‘Fight of the Year’ by the Boxing Writers’ Association of America, and his comeback victory against (till then) undefeated American Carlos Molina, are a testimony to Amir’s street fighter-like spirit. He just refuses to give up.

Opportunities coming at the right time define a sportsperson’s career. Amir reckons his success, or that of India’s favourites boxers Mary Kom and Vijender Singh, is down to being lucky enough to get the right support at the right time.

“Look at Vijender, who is a great fighter. Now he is a professional winning many fights. This is because he had opportunities. India is a very big country and there is plenty of potential. What we need to do is to put these kids into the boxing ring. We need more academies. Boxing is a sport where poor people can come big. That’s where you find true fighters,” says Amir.

He plans to promote boxing and encourage more kids in the sub-continent to take up the sport as a career. “I have opened a very big academy in England with more than 500 children. I want to do the same in India and Pakistan because in our blood we are true fighters. The academy in Islamabad will open a week after my fight against Canelo. We people are hard working and talented. With academies, we can soon win Olympic medals,” asserts Amir.

Amir, who co-owns the Indian Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) company, Super Fight League (SFL), along with his Indian partner Bill Dosanjh, is planning to promote MMA along with boxing in the sub-continent.

The bookmakers do not fancy Amir in his bout against Canelo. The British boxer, however, does not care what people have to say about him.

“Canelo is like the biggest name in boxing today and is the World champion. Normally I go into every fight as the main attraction, but this time I’m entering the ring as an underdog. So I’m really looking forward to the fight,” he says.

According to Amir, he will approach the match just as he had done in Athens 12 years ago as a 17-year-old.

“This (Canelo fight) reminds me of the Olympics. People are writing off my chances and that gives me extra motivation. It brings the best out of me when I’m the underdog. I always believe in myself,” says Amir.

Canelo is renowned for his brawling approach. He is powerful and a genuine puncher, who will knock down any opponent if given the space. More importantly, Canelo has steadily improved his counter-punching style in the past few years, which makes him a lethal boxer with adaptive techniques.

Amir, however, is confident in his own abilities ahead of the big bout. “To beat power, I have speed. Speed, in my opinion, beats everything else. I’m the quickest fighter in the world. I’ve got the quickest of combinations and the quickest of punches. So I’m going to use that advantage and make sure that I don’t make any mistakes against Canelo,” he says.

Canelo versus Amir promises to be an exciting match for boxing enthusiasts across the world. Some are already calling it the ‘David versus Goliath’ bout of the year.