Kabaddi is now the second most-watched sport in India behind cricket, with the Pro Kabaddi League attracting over 600 million viewers.
Countries including Iran, Bangladesh and Nepal have already declared it as their national sport. The game has its roots in ancient history but was first widely popularised in early 20th-century India, where it is now the official sport of 10 states.
It’s a game that is easy to understand and only needs a small space in which to be played – a men’s kabaddi court measures 10m x 13m (33ft x 43ft); the women’s version is slightly smaller.
In the UK, the sport was televised in the early 1990s by Channel 4, and these days there are thriving competitions in many cities as well as at university level.
The rising popularity of overseas leagues such as the NFL and NBA shows that British fans are willing to embrace sports that have a little or no home heritage but are just plain entertaining.
Kabaddi arguably has more of a tradition in the UK, thanks to the many waves of immigration from the subcontinent, but how big a deal could it actually become?
I attended a university tournament in London to find out more…
Where’s the ball?
The first thing to note about kabaddi is it’s played without a ball. In some ways, it’s best compared to playground games such as tag and British bulldog. Two teams of seven play 20-minute halves in which each side scores points by attacking or ‘raiding’.
The offensive team sends a raider into the opposition’s half, and he/she must make contact with members of the other team to score points.
When defending, the objective is to capture the raider by wrestling them to the ground or simply by preventing them returning to their own half within 30 seconds.
Tradition dictates that the attacking player must chant ‘kabaddi’ the whole way through his raid. One point is scored for each opponent put out of the game by touching them.
There are many more rules, but that is the best summary without going into too much detail.
In the past, the length of a raid was based on how long you could keep saying ‘kabaddi’. However, in some formats, a 30-second raid rule is now used, although ‘kabaddi’ is still chanted out of respect for the sport’s heritage.
The IC Cup
The IC Kabaddi Cup is a competition for university clubs, and this year’s edition featured nine men’s and four women’s teams: Imperial College (A and B men’s team’s plus women); University of Birmingham (A and B men’s), LSE (men’s A and women’s), King’s College London (men’s A and women) and University of Manchester (men’s A and women).
‘Although kabaddi is mostly popular within Asian communities, the competitors were extremely diverse’
With the tournament starting at 10am, many of the teams were in the Imperial College sports hall warming up by 9.15am. The venue was freezing, and one of the competitors told me: “It is very cold in here, and that’s why after every game I will put on lots of layers to make sure my muscles aren’t negatively affected.
“It also why we warm up and down properly. We need every muscle to be working effectively at all times as it can get quite intense, and that can be the difference to winning or losing points.”
As the hall filled with competitors and fans, the players began running defensive and offensive drills, applying strapping to old injuries and gearing up for hectic day of action featuring five games per hour on different courts. It was certainly action packed.
Inclusion is a key aim of university life, whether in studies or in sport, and it was great to see so many people from different backgrounds showing up to compete in a still relatively unknown sport in the UK.
Many of the players are part of the England kabaddi set-up and were also using this competition to polish their form for upcoming games with the national team.
Although, female teams have competed in the IC Kabaddi Cup before, their growing number meant a move away from the round-robin format used in in past seasons.
Furthermore, having attended the competition in the previous two years, it was wonderful to see how much the women’s teams have improved there teams in terms of skills and tactics.
Imperial A and Birmingham A were the favourites heading into the men’s competition. A quick straw poll among spectators made Imperial the front-runners ahead of Birmingham, with one brave soul going for LSE.
Imperial having won the tournament three years in a row since it began In 2015, so expectations were certainly high within their camp. They started the campaign brightly and brushed aside all the teams they faced.
Birmingham A were also very good in the group matches. Their defence was strong and agile, the raiders nimble and clinical. They were one of the form teams heading into the competition and the first match showed just how good they were.
‘With the 2019 Kabaddi World Cup in Malaysia containing a record 32 men’s and 24 women’s teams, surely the future is bright for this amazing sport’
After a gruelling five and a half hours of group matches, the men’s semi-finalists were Imperial A vs King’s and Birmingham A vs LSE. One ended up being a complete mismatch as Birmingham beat LSE 49-8 in a truly one-sided spectacle.
They booked their place in the final after losing to a last-gasp bonus point in 2017, and were fired up to gain revenge. Imperial had a tougher passage in a much closer game as they beat KCL 38-22.
The atmosphere got more intense as the finals began, with Imperial College dispatching their LSE rivals to to win the women’s competition.
A few minutes later, the rousing team talks and battle cries could be heard as Imperial A vs Birmingham A prepared to do battle.
In a finale which had dramatic tackles, last-minute points and injuries, Birmingham held their nerve to triumph 27-20 and break Imperial’s winning streak in the competition.
With Kabaddi growing in popularity throughout the UK, and with its fairly simple rules and lack of equipment, perhaps this is a good time for schools to make it part of their PE offering.
It would certainly help the sport to grow, although the real key to this is more exposure through wider media coverage.
In today’s crowded sports market, this is a tall order, but I believe kabaddi has all the attributes of a sport deserving greater interest and attention.
In today’s multichannel age, and with more sport now being streamed directly to fans via social media platforms, kabaddi could yet grow to rival more established sports.
Inclusion in the Olympics would do wonders for its profile, but this would take a lot of campaigning and persuasion over many years.
However with the 2019 Kabaddi World Cup in Malaysia containing a record 32 men’s and 24 women’s teams, surely the future is bright for this amazing sport.