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Pro Kabaddi League: From unknown kabaddi players to superstars

With the second edition of the Pro Kabaddi League right around the corner, we look at how the league has changed the lives of India's kabaddi players

Anup Kumar vividly recalls the time when not many people knew who he was despite having represented India on multiple occasions and being an Arjuna awardee.

Patna Pirates' Rakesh Kumar (extreme left), Telugu Titans' Rahul Chaudhury, Bengal Warriors' Dinesh Kumar, Puneri Paltan's Vazir Singh, Jaipur Pink Panthers' Navneet Gautam, Dabang Delhi's Jasmer Singh, U Mumba's Jeeva Kumar and Bengaluru Bulls' Manjeet Chillar with the new Pro Kabaddi League trophy yesterday. Pic/Atul Kamble
Patna Pirates' Rakesh Kumar (extreme left), Telugu Titans' Rahul Chaudhury, Bengal Warriors' Dinesh Kumar, Puneri Paltan's Vazir Singh, Jaipur Pink Panthers' Navneet Gautam, Dabang Delhi's Jasmer Singh, U Mumba's Jeeva Kumar and Bengaluru Bulls' Manjeet Chillar with the new Pro Kabaddi League trophy yesterday. Pic/Atul Kamble  

"Before the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL), no one knew me. I've represented India many times, and apart from relatives and friends, no one knew that I played kabaddi for a living. But now even kids recognise us. We're like cricketers now," says Anup, who is all set to lead city-based franchise, U Mumba, in Season 2 of the PKL that begins at the National Sports Club of India's Sardar Vallabhai Patel Stadium from tomorrow.

Anup was adjudged the Most Valuable Player of PKL's inaugural edition last year as he guided his team to the runners-up spot. The Haryana cop shot into the limelight ever since, and he's not the only one to have done so. The overwhelming success of PKL-1 made overnight celebrities of hitherto unknown kabaddi players, even in villages.

"On a recent visit to my village, Lanja (in Ratnagiri), I was mobbed. People congratulated me and some even clicked pictures. The villagers told me that they gather in front of their TV sets to watch our matches each night. It reminded me of the way people watched cricket decades ago," reveals U Mumba defender Vishal Mane.

Back home in Mumbai, Mane has been urged by countless parents to start his own academy in the Parel area where he lives, so that "their kids can become like him". "Even girls have walked up to me and asked if they could click a picture. We're stars now," adds U Mumba defender Surender Nada.

Inconveniences of fame
Stardom though comes with its own little inconveniences. Bengaluru Bulls' Ajay Thakur fondly remembers an incident during the first PKL season when he was mobbed in a market. "People recognised who I was and in the blink of an eye, I was surrounded by a mob. Everyone congratulated me, and shook hands. Some even clicked pictures. It took me three hours just to finish shopping," Thakur says with an unmistakable hint of pride in his voice.

Bengaluru Bulls' Ajay Thakur with Bollywood actress Amrita Puri. Pic/Ajay Thakur's Facebook Account
Bengaluru Bulls' Ajay Thakur with Bollywood actress Amrita Puri. Pic/Ajay Thakur's Facebook Account  

Thakur also adds that thanks to his newfound popularity, he has already amassed 5000 'friends' on Facebook — the maximum permissible limit set by the social networking site — and has at least 3000 more friendship requests pending. Such extraordinary attention forced his Bulls teammate Manjeet Chillar to put up a status last year requesting people not to send him friend requests anymore as he had reached the 5000-friend limit.

Money matters
Besides making household names out of kabaddi players, the league has also brought some much-needed cash into the players' bank accounts. Players received anywhere between R1.5 lakhs to R12.8 lakhs for playing in the league last year and this year that amount rose to as high as Rs 21.1 lakhs, which Telugu Titans splashed out to buy Iranian Hadi Oshtorak.

Bengaluru Bulls' Gurpreet Singh paid for a house, two cars and some buffaloes in his native village in Punjab with the Rs 11.80 lakhs he received. Dabang Delhi's Jasmer Singh plans to use the Rs 11.20 lakhs he earned to fund the education of his two daughters and a son. So, with money and fame gained in PKL-1, what are the players' expectations from Season 2? "Yeh dil maange more (the heart wants more)," says Navneet Gautam, skipper of the PKL-1 champions Jaipur Pink Panthers.

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