AT THE GAMES

The art and soul of kabaddi: On India's men's and women's Asian Games gold wins in this game of catch

RAKESH Kumar's wounded head is strapped in white bandage like a pirate's headband, his hands are painted with dried blood and he owns a rough-hewn physique that suggests he drank excessive litres of milk as a boy. "Yes," he drawls in Hindi between posing with a clenched fist for a dazzled female fan, "I got a knee in my head."

Then the Indian captain, 32, got up against the brilliant Iranians in the final and won his third Asian Games gold medal.

Hey, this is kabaddi. Stuff happens. Like even a tactic that is called the mule kick.

You can mock the game, just not in front of Indian coach Balwan Singh, a kabaddi evangelist who exclaimed: "This is the supergame of the world." Not quite, but it has its own beauty, for players need smarter footwork than boxing, must tackle like part-time rugby players and require the flexibility of dancers.

No, there is no protective gear. No, sissies aren't invited.

At its heart, kabaddi is a game of catch - or tag - which every culture knows. When I told an Iranian that India invented kabaddi, he gently informed me this was utter nonsense. This game, he said, was actually kibadi, an Iranian pastime which existed for thousands of years before it became a sport called zu. Since ancient records of the origins of kabaddi and kibadi were not put down by village historians, he and I called it a draw.

Born on village mud, kabaddi is exquisitely simple: a 13-metre rectangular court with a line bisecting it. Both teams have seven players. Turn by turn each team sends a raider into the opponents' half. The raider is supposed to chant "kabaddi, kabaddi, kabaddi", which he does, and hold his breath, which he really doesn't. No one competes in a physical sport without breathing unless you're at the underwater swimming championship.

In the roughly 35-40 seconds that the raider goes hunting, he's trying to touch as many rival players as he can. If he touches one, that player is out of the game and the raider gets a point. Except touching isn't easy - think of it as chasing down your squirming, twisting son when you're trying to get him to eat his dinner. So the raider feints, he lunges, he turns, he sweeps out a leg to touch a rival, he kicks out his back leg - yes, the mule kick. It is a one-man ballet of balance.

The rival team are trying to elude and capture the raider all at once. They approach this with the seriousness of a village hit-squad trying to capture an intransigent, vigilant chicken. Nimble and quick, they skip out of the raider's way and there is so much twisting of bodies that these fellows need travelling chiropractors, not just coaches.

The catchers also hold hands and form chain gangs and try to trap the raider any which way they can. Says my kabaddi tutor, former India coach Edachery Bhaskaran: "There's a chain hold, an ankle hold, a thigh hold, a trunk hold... " Yup, understood.

There is technique at play here and toughness at work. The catchers pounce with an athletic fury and if successful will bury the raider under their angry bodies. But occasionally the raider will wiggle out like a desperate eel and if he can get his hand to the centre line then every catcher who is touching him is out.

The game has more technicalities but essentially this is it - raid and catch till one team run out of players and then they start again till 40 minutes are up.

India have now won all seven Asian Games golds since 1990, for in this land kabaddi is a village game of religious popularity. In just one district, says Bhaskaran of where he lives in India's south, there are 400 kabaddi clubs. On weekends, life stops and the chant of "kabaddi" is like a community prayer. And then somehow, for no apparent reason, a village sport burst into urban India this year.

A pro league was held in India, players made up to $30,000 and for the first 29 days more Indians watched it on TV than anything except cricket. Three times more than even the Fifa World Cup. Now players like Gautam Navneet are stalked by Facebook fans and it's as if an entire nation is rediscovering its rural roots.

But no sport is ever owned forever by one nation and Iran's men nearly stole gold yesterday. They led 21-13 at one point before inexperience defused ambition and India edged home 27-25. India's women also beat Iran, 31-21.

So fine, I admit, kabaddi, with only eight nations here, is a cousin of trampolining and soft tennis, all of which should be politely escorted out of this sport-heavy Games. Except one look at the bloody, bandaged captain Kumar, who looked like he could casually lift a mule, not to mention kick like one, and I thought this suggestion was best left to another day.

rohitb@sph.com.sg

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Oct 4, 2014.