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India's kabaddi wrestles its way back into sporting limelight

By Mallika Kapur, CNN
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 0354 GMT (1154 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Kabaddi is one of India's oldest indigenous sports -- it's basically a mix of school-yard tag and wrestling
  • Kabaddi's popularity faded away over the years, as sports like cricket dominated TV coverage
  • Now a new professional league is underway, and is being screened by a major Indian broadcaster

Mumbai, India (CNN) -- If you grew up in India, chances are you played kabaddi as a child.

I did. My friends did. Bollywood actor and now professional kabaddi league team owner, Abhishek Bachchan says he did too.

So when you talk about kabaddi, there's a whiff of nostalgia associated with the sport. As children, we played kabaddi in the garden. You don't need any equipment. We just drew two lines in the mud, that's it. What you need is strength and stamina... and you should be able to hold your breath for at least 30 seconds.

What is kabaddi?

Kabaddi is one of India's oldest indigenous sports. It's basically a mix of school-yard tag and wrestling. You have two teams of seven players who stand on either side of a line. Each team sends a "raider" across to the other side, one by one. The raider must tag as many opponents as he can and rush back to his side before the defenders catch him.

Sounds simple? It is, though there is a twist: the raider must hold his breath the entire time he's trying to tag someone and keep chanting "kabaddi, kabaddi, kabaddi" to prove he's not taking another breath.

"Here is a sport which is a mixture of rugby, wrestling and it's got the strategy of chess. It's fantastic," says Bachchan.

Unfortunately, kabaddi faded away over the years. It was still played, but predominantly in rural areas. In urban India, it lost out to other sports like cricket and to a lesser extent, football, which are televised and so very easy to watch.

Here is a sport which is a mixture of rugby, wrestling and its got the strategy of chess. It's fantastic.
Abhishek Bachchan, Bollywood actor

"We have become this one sport nation," says well-known Indian sports commentator Charu Sharma. "It's a bit of a monster. Cricket has had a huge head start in terms of visibility on TV, which is a big deal in sport. Most sports are only as popular as their live TV coverage, so that is what is required."

TV rebirth

But now kabaddi is finally getting it.

Sharma has teamed up with Indian business tycoon Anand Mahindra to launch India's first pro kabaddi league, based along the lines of Indian cricket's successful Indian Premier League (IPL).

There are eight franchises owned by corporate czars and Bollywood stars, and matches are played indoors on a large mat.

In another huge boost for kabaddi, major broadcaster Star Sports decided to screen these matches live every night on prime time television.

"The network felt the need to foster a multi-sport culture in India," says Uday Shankar, CEO of Star India.

It's a gamble. Will audiences tune in to watch a sport that India has ignored for years?

It seems they're intrigued. Star Sports says the inaugural game -- played in a stadium packed with celebrities, smoke machines and loud music -- was watched by 66 million viewers across the country. That's 10 times higher than the Indian figures for the FIFA World Cup opening match between Brazil and Croatia.

"Everybody thinks of kabaddi as a very rural, basic, aggressive sport, you play on the grass or in the mud, but when you see international kabaddi today, its exhilarating," says Bachchan.

Rakesh Kumar, one of India's most celebrated kabaddi players says he can't believe his sport is enjoying such a resurgence. "In my dreams I never thought I'd see a day like this."

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