Kabaddi - England's players quit jobs, move to India in quest to improve national team

By Chiranjit Ojha

(Reuters) - The mention of kabaddi often leaves Britons scratching their heads but a handful of players keen to develop the game in England have tried their best to explain the 4,000-year-old sport, well known to the country's South Asian diaspora.

"I always say it's like team wrestling with tag," England international Felix Li said.

As a modern version of the discipline from ancient India slowly expands its presence globally, a group of enthusiasts from various backgrounds have banded together to establish England as an emerging nation in the sport ahead of a World Cup next year.

Organised by the breakaway World Kabaddi Federation (WKF), the tournament in England will not feature national teams affiliated with its rival governing body, the International Kabaddi Federation (IKF).

However, for many of the dozens of kabaddi players in England, it is still an opportunity. With little money and recognition on offer, these international players find the time to play the sport between their day jobs and other obligations.

Li, a tech manager in a startup, and accountant Yuvraj Pandeya, quit their jobs altogether to pursue their passion abroad -- a move that paid off when they were signed by Dabang Delhi in Pro Kabaddi (PKL), the premier league in the sport.

The PKL, launched by Mashal Sports in 2014, had 226 million viewers during the first 90 matches of its 2023-24 regular season, the league said in February.

"Felix is doing a daily vlog where he's basically sending all the skills that we've learned back to the people in the UK," Pandeya told Reuters.

Li and Pandeya began training in India in November 2022 after England lost all their games in their debut campaign in the Bangabandhu Cup -- an invitational tournament in Bangladesh.

In last year's edition, England won two matches, beating Poland and Argentina to finish fourth in their group behind hosts Bangladesh, Iraq and Nepal. But progress has been slow.

"The problem with kabaddi in UK is that we don't have the coaches with the know-how," England player Tom Dawtrey said.

"We coach ourselves by watching videos, watching Pro Kabaddi."


Li, who comes from a family of Hong Kong origin, discovered kabaddi at Imperial College in London.

"I've played rugby throughout school. That's probably why I could make some catches in my first training session," Li said.

Dawtrey says there are a lot of transferable skills between the two sports.

"Some of the tackles are pretty similar, as well as the agility and the strength combination," he said.

This version of kabaddi is played on a rectangular mat divided in two. Each team takes turns sending a player to the opponents' half for a "raid" of 30 seconds or less to touch one or more opponents and return to the centre line to score points.

The raiders must hold their breath during a raid, made apparent through a chant of "kabaddi kabaddi kabaddi," while opponents who act as "defenders" try to capture the raider with various wrestling-style trips, traps and tackles to score a point.

Other iterations of the sport include those that are played on circular fields and allow open-palm strikes.

The sport has naturally attracted fans of contact sports, according to Siddharth Raman, the CEO of Sportz Interactive who promote Pro Kabaddi.

"It's fast-paced ... there's action happening every second in a format that has matches getting done in 40 minutes," he said.

Most England internationals discovered the sport through tournaments organised by South Asian communities or while at university.

"We got into the sport playing it as a hobby... In the UK, it's still kind of a hobby," Pandeya said.

Dawtrey said the players in England found it hard to improve due to a lack of tournaments.

"We had a British Kabaddi League (BKL) in the UK ... it allowed you to test yourself. But most of the time you don't know if your training's working," he said.

The BKL, launched in 2022, is set to stage its 2024 edition in Coventry in May.

Li and Pandeya did not get any game time in Pro Kabaddi this season, but they said the Indian league had provided them with a valuable experience while hoping others follow in their footsteps by moving abroad to learn from the best.

Dawtrey said he was planning to quit his job in May and travel to India to train in an academy affiliated with Pro Kabaddi side UP Yoddha.

"Sometimes you can't deny your passion," Dawtrey said. "Playing in the Bangabandhu Cup, representing my country, taking selfies with fans and seeing their enthusiasm, it's really validating as a player who's travelled so far."

With some experience, Li hopes to improve England's prospects in upcoming tournaments.

"I don't want to jinx it but I expect to have another big jump in quality this year," Li said.

"We've had a full year of me and Yuvraj teaching the others, so I hope that will show."

(Reporting by Chiranjit Ojha in Bengaluru, editing by Pritha Sarkar)