If you grew up in the lush hills of Tamil Nadu or the arid heat of Mumbai, your childhood playground would have been punctuated by the sudden screams of ‘Howzat’ and the murmuring burbles of ‘”kabaddi, kabaddi, kabaddi”.
Even the most pig ignorant American could deduce that the howls of ‘howzats’ were from the glorious summer game, cricket. Kabaddi, even for a poly-sports loving renaissance fan the game is a complete foreign mystery.
One aberrant afternoon when I was not being inundated with Premier league soccer, I channel hopped through my expensive Sky Sports package – reruns of darts from the mid nineties didn’t tickle my fancy nor did an insipid European Tour Golf tournament from the Middle East.
What did prick my sensibilities was the sight of sixteen wild eyed Indian men squirming and screaming on what appeared to be a space aged miniature tennis court.
The game was kabaddi.
Before kick off – the earnest, not all together athletic, teams jog out from the changing rooms to the beat of Bollywood music, alongside an impossibly over-the-top hologram of their respective mascots.
If you were expecting a kabaddi player to have the body of a chiseled Greek god you would be sadly mistaken. Nevertheless they are keen – a jog around the court like a sombre marching band was the only warm up, to speak of, and, quicker than a hungry cheetah, we were ready for action.
Like any good sport the rules are rudimentary; the teams take turns sending a “raider” into the other half. To win a point, the raider must take a breath, run into the opposing half, tag one or more members of the opposite team, then return to his home half before inhaling again.
The raider will chant “kabaddi, kabaddi” with his exhaling breath to show the referee he has not inhaled.
Best laid plans of mice and men.
The commotion begins with one team holding hands and creating a crescent shape around the raider.
There is, like a vast majority of Indian culture, a slight undercurrent of fresh faced homoeroticism in kabaddi – The defenders sway and dance to a mythical song and the crescent begins to take shape more like the plough. The raider flits amongst the men holding hands, all the while murmuring kabaddi like a bag lady on the street, his elegant forays were reminding me of a vengeful Carlos Acosta in a bar brawl.
Eventually he ran out breath, like watching me in a bar brawl, and is wrestled to the ground by the ring of fire. I became a bit confused at this moment as lights coupled with epileptic inducing holograms flashed on the screen and extraordinarily loud music vied with the enthusiastic commentator.
The commentator’s zealous prose was less of a narration and more of an overly exuberant chap screaming banal platitudes and lauding the, lightly watched, event as “world famous” and erroneously promising that the “eyes of the world are watching the Star Sports Pro Kabaddi league”. His enthusiasm should be celebrated but his content lamented.
The Star Sports Pro Kabaddi league is an extraordinary indication of the Indian insular eccentricity. Moustaches drenched in sweat sat underneath slightly hooked noses and the serious and ever so toothy player’s hair was meticulously matted into place, and never moving in spite of the energy.
The game continued. It is not rhythmical but is a peculiarly entrancing spectacle and I discovered by listening to the screeching adoration of the crowds that the monobrowed and vacant eyed Pardeep Narwal is the pin up boy of kabaddi.
As the game wore on it, stewarded wonderfully by a confused and pot bellied umpire, the pinnate footed forays became slower and more staccato. The ring-a-ring-a-Rosie style defences became more like the knights of the round table in bad moods…swinging arms into tired jaws saw these genteel out of shape chaps being flung to the floor at regular intervals.
The game descended into a violent ball-less version of rugby league, or what a decently educated chap would call an organised fight.
For those who were interested Patna beat Pune….who cares and who understood but wasn’t it fun!