England hope Lionel Messi of kabaddi can lead them to first World Cup

England men’s team are being widely tipped to cause an upset and secure a first World Cup title

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The Independent Online

English sport will probably be relieved to see the back of 2014, given the Ashes ignominy at the start of the year, the debacle that was the Brazil World Cup and mediocre performances in rugby and other team competitions. Barring the odd standout individual performance from the likes of Lewis Hamilton, it has largely been an annus horribilis.

Salvation for those who wear the Three Lions with pride, however, may come in the unusual setting of the dusty playing fields of Punjab, north India, when the Kabaddi World Cup gets under way today. For once, England go into an international tournament as one of the favourites, aided by having one of the world’s best players.

England get under way with an opening match against Denmark. Twenty teams, almost exclusively made up of players with Indian backgrounds, are taking part in the three-week tournament organised by Punjab’s state government.

Eight women’s teams are also participating, including England, who have no players with Indian backgrounds, something that has given them huge novelty value.

As England women’s coach, Ashok Das, says: “We are probably the tournament’s most popular team but I don’t think it’s because of our kabaddi skills. We have been to Punjab before and people are amazed that there’s an all-white women’s kabaddi team.”

While few expect them to make an impact in the tournament, the England men’s team are being widely tipped to cause an upset and secure a first World Cup title thanks largely to their captain, Sandeep Sandhu, dubbed “the Lionel Messi of kabaddi” after being ranked the world’s top player of 2014.

“Yes, we have the Lionel Messi of kabaddi, so anything is possible,” says England’s coach, Deepa Moli. “We have a strong, balanced side and the boys have been working very hard to make sure the World Cup comes to England for the first time. This would be a great achievement.”

While a potential English men’s victory is unlikely to register in the consciousness of the majority of English sports fans, nor indeed lead to a reception at Buckingham Palace, the traditional sport of kabaddi is serious business in some parts of India, pockets of England and other countries where Asians have settled.

Today’s opening ceremony in the Guru Gobindh Stadium in Jalandhar City is already a 50,000 sellout. Matches are taking place over the next three weeks in 20 different cities and towns and will be televised live on a state-run television channel. The total prize-money on offer is almost £200,000.

In England, the kabaddi season runs from June to August, with matches held each Sunday in predominantly Asian areas, attracting crowds of up to 4,000. The best  full-time players, who come over for the three-month season, can earn anything up to £30,000 in that time. This year’s England champions, Punjab United Wolverhampton, were led by Sandhu.

Kabaddi is best described as a combination of the playground game British Bulldog, wrestling and rugby without a ball. There are two teams of 11 players each within a circle made up of attackers, known as raiders, and defenders, known as stoppers or antis.

A raider enters the other team’s half to try and tag an opponent and get back to his half within 30 seconds, earning a point if successful (this has replaced the old rule where the raider had to hold their breath and constantly say the word “kabaddi”).

If the raider is detained by a stopper and prevented from getting back to their own side, the point is awarded to the defending team. Matches comprise two halves of 20 minutes each.

Those of a certain age will remember kabaddi when it was televised on Channel 4 in the early 1990s, giving it a cult following, particularly among students.

It is a sport that requires a combination of strength, guile and speed, and is said to have started more than 4,000 years ago on the battlefield of Kurukshetra and is depicted in the great Sanskrit epic of Mahabharata. Later scriptures also refer to the Buddha playing it when growing up.

For the England team, the focus is on more modern-day concerns. The squad is following a special diet plan and has also had sessions with a sports psychologist.

Unfortunately, Moli has also had to appeal to England fans travelling to this year’s tournament to behave themselves, as they have been involved in violence in the past.

“A lot of drinking goes on at the kabaddi tournaments and Punjabis as a whole are quite a fiery lot,” said the England coach. “There have been problems in the past with violence at matches and I’m afraid that a lot of the time England fans are involved.

“This is England’s best opportunity to win a World Cup and we don’t want that ruined by our fans getting drunk and causing trouble.”

WHAT IS KABADDI? A BRIEF EXPLANATION

Played within boundaries as a contact sport between two teams of 11, the game’s aim is to accrue as many points as possible within two 20-minute halves.

Points are earned when an opponent is eliminated in one of two ways: either by being tagged or by failing to escape the opponent’s half.

A “raider” must tag members of the opposing team and return to their half within 30 seconds. Once all a team’s players are eliminated, the other side gain three points.

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