DUBAI: Nasir Ali had played for Pakistan for more than 12 years and won three Asian Games medals, but had never seen this kind of fanfare.
After leading his team, Faisalabad Sherdils to the final of the Super Kabaddi League (SKL), the 35-year-old returned home a hero. Even though his team had lost out 36-38 to Gujarat Warriors in the final, posters, with his face beaming out, lined the road between Lahore and his hometown of Faisalabad.
The SKL, taking a cue from the Pro Kabaddi, had turned the spotlight on the game. The roaring response it got marked another milestone as the country attempts to journey back into the game’s elite.
“Since Pro Kabaddi, lots of players in Pakistan are veering towards Asian style kabaddi,” says veteran defender Ali on the sidelines of Kabaddi Masters Dubai. “There is a lot more fame and money in it now.”
Though circle kabaddi, a variation of the sport, was more popular in Pakistan, they were India’s keenest rivals even in international competitions on the rectangular court. India were the runaway leaders, but Pakistan a comfortable second. But the hierarchy changed with Iran’s emergence at the turn of the century. The Iranians claimed silver at the last two Asian Games while South Korea, who had won a bronze at 2014 Incheon Games, became the only team to beat India in this style of kabaddi at the 2016 World Cup.
“We were second best but Iran came and overtook us and challenged India,” says former Pakistan player and coach Badshah Gul. “At the last Asian Games, Korea too was there. So there was a fear we might be out of the medal tally altogether. That got people to start seriously thinking about what needs to be done.”
Pakistan received a further blow when they were not allowed to compete at Pro Kabaddi from the third season onwards. They were also left out when India hosted the World Cup in 2016. But that was what sparked a need for their own league. Two years in the making, the SKL was established in May 2018, with 10 teams competing over 10 days. It was also timed in a way that players would get to compete against the best, just a few months ahead of the Asian Games.
That Pakistan had already started making progress was clear during their 28-24 win over Iran at the Asian Cup in November 2017. Having pored over videos of Irani players in Pro Kabaddi, Pakistan exploited their weaknesses. “We had changed style of play as well at the Asian Championships,” said national coach Nabeel Ahmed Rana. “Earlier we used to focus on defence, now we are working on offence. The Super League has thrown up some young talent, giving us a bigger pool to choose from.”
With kabaddi counted as one of the ‘emerging sports’ by their ministry, they have also received government support ahead of the 2018 Jakarta Games. “Our preparation has been more upbeat this time,” says Ali, who will be competing in his fourth Asian Games. “Hopefully we will get a better result as well.”