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These 8 men are the new face of kabaddi - and we bet you don't know their names

Speed News Desk | Updated on: 13 February 2017, 3:21 IST

"First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win," said Mahatma Gandhi with absolutely no reference to sport - but the quote may well define the story of contemporary kabaddi in India.

We tend to think of filling stadiums as important to a sport's success. It isn't. Most integral to a sport hitting the big league is one simple question: is it televisable?

The answer, in the case of kabaddi, is a vehement yes. It's hungry, competitive, passionate. It's rugged, physical, high-adrenaline. It may be an ancient village tradition, but it's actually made for big-ticket success.

That big-ticket success needs two things: sharp patrons and heroic players.

The former came together last year to create the Pro Kabaddi League, using the template set by Twenty20 cricket to generate a never-before buzz around the sport. There was drama and entertainment, movie stars and industrialists, thumping music and branded team gear - and the payoff was immediate.

The game generated a staggering 2 billion digital mentions during its 6-week duration, and was watched by an estimated 430 million people. 10 times more people tuned in on opening night than did for the opening of the Football World Cup. Star TV came on board as both title sponsor and exclusive broadcaster.

Clearly, on the patronage side, things are on the right track. What's been left behind in the publicity stakes? The players.

These are the young men who define the contemporary new face of an age-old game. They're tough. They're competitive. They're skilled. They're superb sportsmen. And they're invisible to most of the country.

As the Pro Kabaddi League 2015 kicks off, here's a look at the key player from every one of the 8 teams, the men whose names and on-field exploits we're going to be buzzing about for the next few weeks - and years.

Surjeet Narwal, nicknamed The Flying Machine, who plays for Dabang Delhi
Surjeet Nahwal Dabang Delhi

Photo: Getty Images

He's 25, and he's the star raider for the Dabang Delhi team. With a total of 113 points, Narwal finished fifth on the list of top raiders for season 1. Nicknamed 'The Flying Machine' for his whirlwind speed and bravado on-field, Narwal hails from Sonepat - the village that has produced the most medallists for Indian in kabaddi. A 2010 Asian Beach Games Gold medallist, he's invaluable to the national team, and a certified hero for his league one.

Rakesh Kumar of the Patna Pirates, who's also an Arjuna Award winner
Rakesh Kumar of the Patna Pirates

Photo: Getty Images

He's older than many others in the competition, but don't underestimate what 33-year-old Rakesh can do. From Nizampur village on the outskirts of Delhi, Kumar is captain of the Indian National Kabaddi team, and a chief ticket inspector for Indian railways. He was the most sought-after player during the pre season 1 auction. Kumar's signature escape move is called 'The Lion Jump' and sees him leaping over multiple defenders at once. He's guided India to gold medals at the 2010 and 2014 Asian Games and was conferred the Arjuna Award - one of only two players - in 2011.

Wazir Singh of the Puneri Paltan, who was part of the team that won India the silver at the South Asian Beach Games
Wazir Singh of the Puneri Paltan

Photo: Getty Images

26-year-old Wazir belongs to a middle-class family in Zind, a village in Haryana. As with many pro kabaddi players, he has a professional life outside the sport - till the formation of the league, making a living off kabaddi alone was unthinkable. A sub-inspector with the Central Industrial Security Force, he is captain of the Puneri Paltan team and has previously represented the State of Rajasthan, the Central Industrial Security Force and the country. He was also part of the team that won the silver medal at the 2011 South Asian Beach Games. On field he's an all-rounder, but best known for being a solid defender.

Jang Kun Lee of the Bengal Warriors, who left his home in South Korea to play professional kabaddi
Jang Kun Lee of the Bengal Warriors

Photo: Getty Images

He's not Indian - but his heart clearly belongs in kabaddi. 22-year-old Jang Kun Lee left Busan, South Korea, to play professionally for the Bengal Warriors - one of only 20 foreigners to participate in season 1 of the league. In the inaugural season, Lee found adapting to two things - language and diet - most challenging. On-field, Lee is an attacker that every defender dreads and has picked up a number of 'Best Raider' awards. Anand Mahindra, owner of the Bengal Warriors, has called him a 'superstar in the making'.

Anup Kumar of the U Mumba team, unquestioned star of the league's first season
Anup Kumar

Photo: Getty Images

From Palra, Haryana, 31 year-old Anup is captain of the U Mumba team and the player no one can ignore. The master raider was the star of the first season of PKL as he won his team a total of 153 raid points, lifting the Most Valuable Player award. In 2012, he was awarded the Arjuna Award by the Government of India for his achievements in the sport. At the 2014 Asian Games, his performances helped India win the gold medal in Incheon. He is currently an inspector with Haryana Police.

Rahul Chaudhary of the Telugu Titans, one of the first season's most successful players
Rahul Chaudhary of the Telegu Titans

Photo: Getty Images

He picked up 151 raid points for his team during the first season, making him one of the best-performing players of the Pro Kabaddi League so far. Of course it's early days yet - and despite his own brilliant performance, Chaudhary failed to lead his team to the semis, as the Titans finished an underwhelming fifth in the league stage. Arguably India's best young player, the 22 year-old carries the hopes of the Telugu Titans side for the second successive season.

Maninder Singh of the Jaipur Pink Panthers, who unquestionably dominated season one of the PKL
Maninder Singh of the Jaipur Pink Panther

Photo: Getty Images

They won 12 of their 16 games in the first season - and went on to win the tournament, to the delight of owner Abhishek Bachchan. The Panthers dominated from word go, and are the team to watch this time as well. The man who made much of it happen for his side? Raider Maninder Singh, who earned his team 107 raid points, including 8 in the final alone. As Maninder lit up the competition with his aggressive raiding, posters of him with the caption 'Jaipur ka panther' started doing the rounds. A Jalandhar native, Maninder works with the Punjab Police, and plays for their kabaddi team as well.

Ajay Thakur of the Bengaluru Bulls, who has played professional kabaddi for nearly 14 years

One of India's best, Ajay (top) played a key role in India's Asian Games gold last year. He did, however, miss a large chunk of the PKL season last year due to illness, as Bengaluru Bulls crashed out in the semis after defeat to U Mumba. 29-year-old Thakur has been playing pro kabaddi for nearly 14 years, and is known for his offensive prowess. An employee of Air India - he's clearly performing better than the ailing airline - he helped steer his employers to kabaddi gold in the 2008 Industrial Championship.

First published: 19 July 2015, 12:44 IST