Dan Palmer

When growing up in India, Ashok Das had the dream of spreading the sport of kabaddi around the world.

The former state level player saw his vision take a big step forward with the launch of the British Kabaddi League (BKL) this week, the first competition for the sport in Europe.

Das, the President of both World Kabaddi and the BKL, moved to England and has now been based in Birmingham for more than three decades.

A qualified coach, he set up the English Kabaddi Association and also introduced the sport to several European countries.

As the eight-team BKL was officially unveiled at Wolverhampton Art Gallery on Tuesday (March 29), he could barely contain his emotions.

"A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step," he said.

"We have taken the first step to what we hope will be a bright future for the game of kabaddi. 

"This first step did not come easy.

"We stumbled in the past, but here we are with the first ever kabaddi league in Europe, with eight teams battling it out for the title."

The eight new teams - Wolverhampton Wolfpack, Birmingham Warriors, Glasgow Unicorns, Edinburgh Eagles, London Lions, Leicester Warriors, Manchester Raiders and Walsall Hunters, are all owned by people from the respective local communities.

Each side will face each other across three competition weekends in Wolverhampton, Birmingham and Manchester, which will be used to decide the seedings for a grand final in Glasgow.

Every host city will be able to stamp their own local feel onto their competition to ensure their event is different from the others.

The British Kabaddi League launched in Wolverhampton ©WMGC
The British Kabaddi League launched in Wolverhampton ©WMGC

"I think it's a significant day for all those people who have been trying to get the sport recognised and give it the profile it needed," said Prem Singh, the chief executive of British Kabaddi, at the launch of the league.

"It's a big day for a lot of people."

An important partner in the launch has been the West Midlands Growth Company (WMGC), which is working to attract sporting competitions to the region and to take advantage of Birmingham's hosting of the 2022 Commonwealth Games.

A business and tourism programme (BATP) based on the Games has the aim of leveraging the event, while embedding "positive perceptions of the West Midlands into the international imagination".

It will focus on tourism, trade and investment in countries across the Commonwealth, with the BKL a notable step in the right direction due to the West Midlands' large population of people with South Asian heritage.

"The WMGC are someone we can talk to openly and frankly," said Singh. 

"Their attitude has been superb. 

"They are very supportive in all aspects of it, which gives us the confidence to do more. 

"They have a lot of contacts and the expertise to bring major events to the West Midlands, and we've utilised that in the right way. 

"We just love working with them and supporting them like they have supported us. 

"We have a lovely working relationship."

The partnership will see Wolverhampton bid for the 2024 Kabaddi World Cup, while Birmingham hopes to host the 2023 European Championships.

"If we can do anything to bring the 2024 Kabaddi World Cup to Wolverhampton, you will see us bend over backwards to make it happen," said Singh.

"It would be a huge thing as the audience would be close to 700 or 800 million worldwide.

"That's more than most major sports, so it's a big thing."

Neil Rami, the chief executive of the WMGC, said the BKL was a "tangible legacy outcome" of the BATP.

"It reflects the programme's aims to cement a shared economic and cultural vision with Commonwealth nations," he said.

Kabaddi dates back to ancient India and is a major sport in the country ©Getty Images
Kabaddi dates back to ancient India and is a major sport in the country ©Getty Images

"It shows our major sporting events strategy in action, highlighting the West Midlands' reputation as a destination for sporting excellence."

Kabaddi dates back to ancient India and is extremely accessible as it requires no equipment to play.

Two teams of seven players take turns to either defend or "raid" into opposition territory.

One raider has to take on the entire line-up of their opponents, and earns points for each player they manage to touch before retreating safely back to their own half of the court.

While doing this, they must only take a single breath - something they must prove by continually chanting "kabaddi". 

This is arguably the most interesting aspect of the sport for outsiders. 

Everyone touched is eliminated from the game, but the defensive unit is working to earn points themselves by neutralising the raider.

For raiders, there is the added incentive of a "bonus line", which lies deeper behind enemy lines but leads to an extra point if touched.

"Kabaddi has a rich history of more than 5,000 years behind it," said Das.

"It is the only sport where defence is teamwork, while offence is an individual effort."

Kabaddi provides moments of huge tension as both the raider and defenders need to pick exactly the right moment to strike.

If, for example, several members of the defence tackle the raider and they still manage to successfully retreat, all of the defenders on top will count as being touched.

Players can be agile, allowing them to nip around the court, or big and strong with wrestling skills to aid in throwing raiders to the floor.

"Every time a raider goes out, they surely must feel like Bruce Lee or Chuck Norris where they have to face seven people," said Singh.

"It's a unique sport that you have to go and do that, and keep a smile on your face and keep calm, while keeping your emotions in check.

"As a defender you are 'aggressive, aggressive, aggressive', and all of a sudden you have to calm down as you need to go and face odds that are against you.

"It's like the best form of physical chess."

In India, the Pro Kabaddi League is big business and behind only cricket's Indian Premier League in television ratings.

A raider takes on defenders during a kabaddi demonstration in Wolverhampton ©WMGC
A raider takes on defenders during a kabaddi demonstration in Wolverhampton ©WMGC

The BKL will be broadcast by the BBC with future plans including a women's event by 2023.

It is hoped that the men's league will increase to 12 teams, while a university competition and a schools development initiative are also planned.

Other aims include a European Club League, including countries such as Poland, Norway and Italy.

Kabaddi has been part of the Asian Games programme since 1990, with women becoming involved in 2010.

Every single gold medal had been won, perhaps unsurprisingly, by India until Iran shocked them by claiming both titles at Jakarta Palembang 2018.

India will be desperate to retain both golds at Hangzhou 2022 this year, and the sport could perhaps one day be considered for Commonwealth Games inclusion.

New rules state that athletics and swimming are the only compulsory sports for the Games, meaning there is flexibility for organisers to add different and varied disciplines to the programme.

India would likely dominate, but Commonwealth teams could also come from the likes of Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Canada, as well as the home nations.

The England men's football team have been known to use kabaddi in their training sessions, perhaps demonstrating how the game has spread outside of South Asia.

"If you look at the Commonwealth Games in its present format, there is definitely room for an ethnic sport of this nature, which has gone worldwide, to be introduced," Singh said.

"And if not as a full sport, let's do it as a development sport.

"We always talk about engagement, we always talk about what more we can do and how we can be more diverse.

"Here it is in a lovely box with a lovely ribbon tied on it!

"Sometimes it takes a particular mindset from the powers that be to wake up one morning and say 'we're going to do this'.

"I'm hoping that day comes sooner rather than later."

England's men's football team playing kabaddi in training in Southampton in 2019 ©Getty Images
England's men's football team playing kabaddi in training in Southampton in 2019 ©Getty Images

Ian Fegan, the City of Wolverhampton's council director of communications and visitor experience, believes hosting a BKL leg is a "major honour".

"It symbolises our commitment to improving physical activity across communities," he said.

"It is part of our five-year events strategy that we estimate will bring two million visitors to our city and boost the local economy by around £60 million ($79 million/€70 million)."

Singh said everyone would be welcome to become involved.

"It's about playing, it's not about politics," he said.

"We've tried to smash the agenda and thinking like 'we can't have them as they are not registered'.

"No, they are young people and they want to play. 

"Let them play, why should there be barriers?

"We don't want to be the gatekeepers of the sport. 

"Anyone who wants to make an effort, come in and be a part of what we do.

"Sit at the table, have a cup of tea, tell us how we can make it better. 

"That's what we believe."