First hand experience with Kabaddi

Here’s a little story from one of the players that went to the world cup twice…

It was December 2013 around the same date as today, and I stood inside a ring of white and purple flour sprinkled on hard trodden clay. I had lost track of time from the early morning, but squinting at the intense sun high in the blue sky, I guessed it was around noon. It was the beginning of winter back in Copenhagen, but the sun was still burning from a clear sky in the northwestern part of Punjab, India. In front of me was a Pakistani man steel bent on attacking me and my friends. My heart was beating intensely, my knees were slightly bent and spring loaded ready to jump him. All of my attention was focused on the huge man in front of me. I heard a low familiar voice telling me to wait. With my left hand I held firmly onto Simon’s arm. I knew that regardless of Simons calming words, there was a risk that I would have to let go of that grip and in a fraction of a second jump the man in front of us. I would probably go after his legs or at least try to grab his neck and somehow get him to the ground and tie him up.

Simon was holding onto Søren with his left hand, and Søren was again holding onto Milan the four of us forming a half circle around the man. Søren and Milan tripped eager for the action to commence. I felt a slight pull in my arm. Milan was trying to pull our half circle left, he wanted us to gain an advantageous angle on the guy. The Pakistani sidestepped left then right then left, attempting with his hypnotic dancing from side to side to lure us into some kind of trap we could not understand. His eyes were fixed on our chests and at no time did he care to look us into the eyes. He slowly bent his knees to the point where he was almost squatting, and extended his arms preparing to thrust himself towards us. We counted seconds. We needed five maybe ten seconds, and the guy would step down. The battle would be over. We knew he did not want that, and that the attack was imminent – any second he would charge one of us and we already knew we most likely would loose the battle.

Simon, Milan and I had known each other and trained together for close to a decade. Søren we had all just met three months before, but at this point it made no difference. Fighting arm in arm on the clay of several smaller rural towns in Punjab had bonded us. With each opponent we faced the air was thick with tension, aggression, focus and the desire to win, and we had to trust each other. For ten consecutive days we had stood like this for 40 minutes fighting off athletic giants from Sierra Leone, Pakistan, India, Canada and Scotland. These heavy but surprisingly swift giants had descended into our half circle on a simple 30 second quest: to touch anyone of us and return safely to their half of the playing field. We on the other hand – even though we outnumbered our opponents by three – were desperately looking for a lack of balance or disturbance of his attention that would give us the chance to jump the guy and pin him to the clay deferring him from returning to his safe side before the 30 seconds had passed. There was nothing more to it – do not let him touch you or pin him, score the point and the round is over.

We held tight yelling to each other to maintain posture, keep the half circle intact, go for his legs, grab his arm, and having no experience with the game we were as tense as gladiators a thousand years ago might have been. Although we knew we were not facing imminent death – as the Romans, Greeks, Nubians and all the other men captured, coerced or enticed into the arena back then might have known they were – we readily accepted that our best defense was offense. And so courageously did double legs, snap downs, angle picks, and arm drags to catch the men before they touched us.

Suddenly the Pakistani man focused his attention on me. It was a small fraction of a second but enough for me to sense that he was going to attack me. I let go of my grip stomped my left foot hard into the clay bent my knees and thrusted myself towards his legs. Floating through the air parallel to the ground I reached for his knees somehow sensing that I was off course. I felt his hand on the side of my shoulder. He was not in front of me as I had aimed for. He had gained an angle on me, and now put all his weight on my left shoulder. The pressure grew until he pinned my shoulder to the ground. My chest was flat on the ground, I had dirt in my mouth. I felt the sun again. I lifted my head from the ground, squinted at the sun, and saw the guy standing now, smiling with the kind of friendly mockery you see between good athletes. We were no match for him, but he sincerely enjoyed playing with us, showing us how a professional does his job. It was obvious to everybody as he elegantly ran back to his half of the playing field.

We missed by far most of the guys with our attacks instead hitting the hard clay, but we got back up and we repeated far beyond bruised backs, rashes and sore hips. Once in a while we succeeded and the crowd of twentyfivethousand turban-clad Indians roared at us. Combined with the hypnotic rhythms of the live Banghra-band on stadium, and the team mates next to you and outside the circle celebrating the victory happily blaring at each other, this game gave us goosebumps like none I have ever tried before or after. Chills and small goosebumps that I feel this very moment.

The game we were playing is called Kabaddi. It is a thousand year old rural game originating somewhere not exactly known in South Asia. They play it all the way from Iran eastwards over Afghanistan, Pakistan, India down to Sri Lanka and Malaysia. It is huge over there and until very recently absolutely unknown in Denmark. Back in 2013 my old friend and training partner Christian – as the reliable provider of great adventures he always is – wrote me a message on Facebook that I should get in contact with Shanti. Apparently she knew of some Indian guys living in Copenhagen that met at a playing field in a suburb, where they would play a traditional Indian game. That is how I met Bikramjit and his family.

Kabaddi – we were told – is an odd blend of the catch game kids play in the schoolyard and freestyle wrestling (and perhaps a dash of rugby). I was of course curious and so was Simon and Milan, and so we went there and played with them on one of the last sunny days of September. The Danish Sikhs that we met there were incredibly welcoming and appreciative of our wrestling and BJJ background, and they firmly believed that it could be transformed into something useful in the game of Kabaddi and that we would make it far in the world of Kabaddi. I have learned much from India, in particular to always subtract from the truth. Most often quite a lot. Heaps actually. But having absolutely no experience with those matters, we gladly embraced the Indian appreciative approach.

Fourteen days later we were on the Danish National Kabaddi Team and 2 months later we were on our way to New Delhi in transit to Jalandar, Punjab that would form our base for fourteen days as we competed in the Kabaddi World Cup 2013. Fourteen days of unforgettable sport adventures, and fourteen days of the utter madness that is Indian bureaucracy combined with being international sport stars escorted by – I kid you not – the national army and light artillery mounted on jeeps, and rushed by crowds of people wanting pictures with us, official parties in the Prime Minister’s private 2 square kilometer garden with ostriches and 19 chefs preparing food from all around the world, endless bus rides on bumpy roads and whiskey-toasted security guards that constantly fell asleep on duty. And of course an exclusive all night party back in New Delhi at the Grand Hyatt financially backed by some internet millionaire aged 26 finishing all his sentences with “mate”. But those are different stories for another time.

And so we went to Punjab as curious athletes, breathed the red dust, kindness, hospitality and irresistible beauty that is also India, and we even returned in 2014 for the consecutive world cup and more dust, clay and charming, unforgettable, people. And long bumpy bus rides. And when we returned in Copenhagen in 2014 we swore that there were two kinds of persons in this world. In fact we still do. There are those who have participated in the Kabaddi World Cups, and there are those who have not.

Yesterday – one year after returning from the last of these adventures – I received a phone call and an official invitation to play for The Dabang Delhi Kabaddi Team in the 2016 Pro Kabaddi Season. Indian organization and timing is a chapter in itself, and for obvious and not so obvious reasons I politely turned down the offer, and instead found some pictures from the two World Cups I participated in and took a good long one hour trip down the memory lane.

And then I wrote this.

Thanks Allan and thanks Saeid Tayebi, it has really been one of the bigger adventures of my life, and you have been two important persons in my life. We are not finished doing adventures…And thanks to all you guys that were part of it. You will read this little story and know who you are – five stars all of you smile-humørikon