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Kabaddi – England players quit their jobs and move to India to improve the national team

The mention of kabaddi often leaves Brits puzzled, but a handful of players keen to develop the game in England have done their best to explain the 4,000-year-old sport that is well known across the country’s South Asian diaspora.

“I always say it’s like team wrestling with tag,” said England international Felix Li.

As a modern version of the discipline from ancient India slowly expands its global presence, a group of enthusiasts from diverse backgrounds have come together to establish England as a rising nation in the sport ahead of next year’s World Cup.

The tournament in England, organized by the breakaway World Kabaddi Federation (WKF), will not feature any national teams affiliated with the rival governing body, the International Kabaddi Federation (IKF).

However, for many of the dozens of kabaddi players in England, it is still an opportunity. With little money and recognition, these international players find the time to play the sport around their jobs and other commitments.

Li, a technology manager at a startup, and accountant Yuvraj Pandeya quit their jobs entirely to pursue their passion abroad – a move that paid off when they joined Dabang Delhi in Pro Kabaddi (PKL), the country’s premier league Sports, were signed.

The PKL, launched by Mashal Sports in 2014, had 226 million viewers through the first 90 games of the 2023-24 regular season, the league said in February.

“Felix does a daily vlog where he basically sends all the skills we have learned back to the people of the UK,” Pandeya told Reuters.

Li and Pandeya began training in India in November 2022 after England lost all their matches in their debut season in the Bangabandhu Cup – an invitation tournament in Bangladesh.

In last year’s edition, England won two games, beating Poland and Argentina and finishing fourth in their group behind hosts Bangladesh, Iraq and Nepal. But progress has been slow.

“The problem with kabaddi in the UK is that we don’t have the coaches with the necessary know-how,” said England player Tom Dawtrey.

“We coach each other by watching videos, Pro Kabaddi.”

RUGBY CONNECTION

Li, who comes from a family originally from Hong Kong, discovered kabaddi at Imperial College in London.

“I played rugby throughout school. That’s probably why I was able to make a few catches in my first training session,” Li said.

Dawtrey says there are many transferable skills between the two sports.

“Some of the tackles are pretty similar, as is the mobility and strength combination,” he said.

This version of Kabaddi is played on a rectangular mat divided into two parts. Each team takes turns sending a player into the opponent’s half for a “raid” of 30 seconds or less to touch one or more opponents and return to the halfway line to score points.

The robbers must hold their breath during a heist, which is made clear by the chant of “kabaddi kabaddi kabaddi,” while opponents acting as “defenders” attempt to catch the robber using various wrestling-style chokes, traps, and tackles to score a point.

Other versions of the sport include those played on circular fields that allow for open-palm strikes.

According to Siddharth Raman, CEO of Sportz Interactive, which promotes Pro Kabaddi, the sport has naturally attracted fans of contact sports.

“It’s fast-paced… there’s action every second in a format where games are played in 40 minutes,” he said.

Most England internationals discovered the sport through tournaments organized by South Asian communities or during their studies.

“We started playing the sport as a hobby… In the UK it is still a hobby of sorts,” Pandeya said.

Dawtrey said players in England were finding it difficult to improve due to the lack of tournaments.

“We had a British Kabaddi League (BKL) in the UK… you could test yourself. But most of the time you don’t know if the training is working,” he said.

Launched in 2022, BKL will host its 2024 edition in Coventry in May.

Li and Pandeya didn’t get playing time in Pro Kabaddi this season, but they said the Indian league gave them valuable experience and hoped others would follow in their footsteps and move abroad to learn from the best.

Dawtrey said he planned to quit his job in May and travel to India to train at an academy affiliated with pro kabaddi team UP Yoddha.

“Sometimes you can’t deny your passion,” Dawtrey said. “Playing in the Bangabandhu Cup, representing my country, taking selfies with fans and seeing their excitement is really affirming for me as a player who has traveled so far.”

With some experience, Li hopes to improve England’s prospects in upcoming tournaments.

“I don’t want to jinx it, but I expect another big jump in quality this year,” Li said.

“We spent a whole year with Yuvraj and I teaching the others, so I hope that will show.”

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