The dust floats off the bruised body of England’s star raider. Pushing her opponent off she lifts her head to check her hand is over the line. Taking her first breath in 30 seconds Sally smiles as she recalls her opponent taking her legs out from underneath her, just metres from the half way line. But her middle finger just crosses the chalky markings; the first point on the kabaddi score sheet is hers and so begins this match of one against seven.
Combining the art of wrestling, the strength of rugby and the thrill of tag, the ancient sport of kabaddi is one step closer to achieving its Olympic ambitions with 41 countries now competing in the game, according to Ashok Das, England women’s kabaddi coach and the vice-president of the International Kabaddi Federation (IKF).
“It’s a game of speed and strength combined. The women’s game is faster than the men’s and the time will come when they will have the upper hand”
England women’s kabaddi coach, Ashok Das
“We want to take kabaddi into the Olympic Games. We have done a lot of work to get people into the game. We have coaches in Iran, Afghanistan and Malaysia. Most of the best coaches are from India because this game comes from India,” said the 49-year-old with a hint of pride in his voice.
This 4,000 year-old sport is played inside a 70m-diameter circle, with the two teams being made up of stoppers and raiders, who try to tag one of the four stoppers and then return into their own half within 30 seconds without being caught.
A successful raid must be completed in a single breath, whilst repeatedly chanting the word kabaddi.
“It’s a game of speed and strength combined. The women’s game is faster than the men’s and the time will come when they will have the upper hand,” said Das, who has been coaching kabaddi for nine years.
“Wherever we play with the women’s team there are thousands of people supporting us. In the past they have said the women are weaker, but people actually enjoy the women’s game more. Women give 100 percent and show no mercy. They call us the gorilla fighters, it is guerrilla warfare when they are on the field.”
The team and Coach Das are keen to recruit younger members. Das, an ex-kabaddi player born in Punjab, introduced the sport to the British Army in 2005 as a way of keeping fit.
With an all white team, made up of army personnel, teachers, a police officer and a pig farmer amongst others, England’s women’s kabaddi players refused to let issues of gender or race get in their way at the Kabaddi World Cup in December.
The 12-strong team grappled their way to the semi-finals, losing out to eventual winners India.
Like most of the team, England’s star raider Sally Tidswell found her rugby skills to be invaluable when she made the move across to kabaddi nine months ago.
She said: “It’s similar to rugby in a way because you have to be agile, get around people and you have to be quick. It’s like rugby without the ball. It’s definitely slower than rugby though, because the raider is coming in and out. Not wearing shoes, playing in a small circle and coming in and out are all difficult.”
“The crowds were big and we’re not used to that. There were definitely thousands cheering us on. This helped us; they cheered us on because we were different to the other teams,” said the 30-year-old science teacher.
“We want to get the game into the Olympics, especially after the news that wrestling had been dropped from the games. We need more countries to back it”
England raider Sally Tidswell
The team were even given police escorts at the competition. And cup organisers also covered the cost of the team’s flights and accommodation in India.
Kabaddi is huge in South Asia, where thousands of people pack stadiums to watch women’s and men’s competitions like the World Cup.
Now the team has returned home its finding training together regularly difficult due to the player’s scattered locations, ranging from Glasgow to London, and only gets together once a month.
“We need to be able to get together more, we don’t have enough time to train because of work and our locations,” Tidswell said.
“India is still at the top of its game. They are so skilful, they are not big or physical but very technical. A lot of our girls win with size, but they are not quite so skilled in grabbing and how to stop people. Even though they are smaller they can still grab us,” she said.
Tidswell is calling for more support for the fledgling sport.
“We want to get the game into the Olympics, especially after the news that wrestling had been dropped from the games. We need more countries to back it,” she said.
The International Olympic Committee last week (February 2013) voted to eliminate wrestling from the Olympic Games.
Kabaddi and kilts
Not only is kabaddi competing against sports with bigger followings and sponsors, in order for it to be considered for inclusion in the Olympic Games it must be widely practiced in at least 75 countries and spread over four continents.
“In so far as spreading the game globally I am sure they have been massively successful. The success of the game has been huge, particularly in the western countries,” said Blair Hawthorne, captain of newly formed Scottish kabaddi team, which also competed at the World Cup.
|Scottish kabaddi team pose in their kilts [Colin Mearns]|
But what the Scots lacked technique they made up for this in enthusiasm, managing to persuade the largest highland wear specialists to kit the party out in traditional kilts.Coached by Indian’s Kash Taank and Prem Singh, Scotland’s team, comprised completely of players from the Strathclyde University Rugby club, failed to make it through the group stages after losing all three matches.
“Although we did have kilts we didn’t play in them,” said Hawthorne, who also captains the rugby team.
He called for better representation and more transparency if the game is to be move into the international arena: “There needs to be a more fair representation of different players. We were the only team to be made full Scots. Every other team had a multitude of Singhs.”
The tournament, which took place in the Punjab province of India December 1 – 15 2012, was the third competition with teams from 14 nations, including England, Italy and the USA.
“It also needs to be more about the sport and not about the people who pay for it,” said Hawthorne.
The team plans to compete again at the 2013 Kabaddi World Cup.
The IKF has set up new teams in Wales, along with an English men’s and a Scottish women’s team. Last year Das flew to Canada to work with the newly formed all-Indian women’s kabaddi team, comprised of three mother and daughter pairings.
The Canadian players fell at the first hurdle at the World Cup, losing to India and Denmark in the league phase.
Samrana Hussain is a freelance journalist who writes on international sport and news. She has covered three Olympic Games including Beijing 2008, London 2012 and numerous other global sporting events.
Follow her on Twitter @SamranaH