In a cricket crazy country, one might actually forget that kabaddi is the national sport.
To the average kid growing up in Dhaka, the rules of the sport and who are the national team players might not be known.
But this is the sport that was the most popular one back in the early '70s and it was this popularity along with accessibility that made Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman name it the national sport in the country.
"In 1972, after our independence, we were invited to a folk games tournament in India with Kabaddi being one of the sports. That is when Bangabandhu gave us permission to go and take part in the tournament. After participating and returning back to the country, one of the players MA Hamza told Bangabandhu that kabaddi should be played professionally, given its popularity here and in India," Gazi Md Mozammel Hoque, the joint secretary of the Bangladesh Kabaddi Federation told The Business Standard.
"Back then, cricket was not so popular and even football was not so easy to play because people couldn't afford balls. They would play with pomelos and sometimes by wrapping up cloth over a coconut to play football. But to play kabaddi, you didn't need anything. All you needed was a field and that is why in 1974, three years after our independence, kabaddi was named as the national sport of Bangladesh," Mozammel explained.
The growth of kabaddi
Back then, kabaddi was mostly played between Bangladesh and India as it was not so popular in other countries.
So it would mostly be Bangladesh touring India and vice-versa for four-five match series but the idea of having kabaddi in the South Asian (SA) Games piqued the interest of Pakistan to start playing the sport.
And that is when Amir Hossain Patwary, an ex-national team kabaddi player became the coach of the Pakistan kabaddi team: "Amir Hossain was a good player and when Pakistan was looking for a coach, he took the job and Pakistan were able to field a team. Thus, we were able to have kabaddi in the SA Games," Mozammel adds.
In the SA Games, India would often be winning the gold medal while Bangladesh won silver.
But both countries wanted kabaddi to be in the Asian Games: "We realised that having kabaddi in the Asian games would increase our chances of winning a medal. So with the joint efforts of India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal, along with us, we managed to get Malaysia, Singapore, Japan, Thailand and South Korea playing kabaddi."
Once kabaddi got into the Asian Games, Bangladesh won silver medals in three tournaments.
Currently, there are 16 Asian teams playing kabaddi and 32 teams in the world playing kabaddi and there is a concerted effort from both India and Bangladesh to get kabaddi into the Olympic games in the near future.
"Teams from Europe like Denmark, Italy and the United Kingdom are playing kabaddi while in South America you have Argentina playing and in North America, the United States are also playing. Once we can get 36 teams playing kabaddi, we can have the sport in the Olympics," Mozammel explains.
The national kabaddi stars
We can all agree that one of the main reasons why cricket is so popular in Bangladesh is because of the amount of media exposure the players get.
Thanks to the media coverage and the rise of social media, they are now bonafide celebrities with star status.
The same cannot be said for kabaddi and the current players or the national team stars of the past.
"Amir Hossain Patwary, Shobimol Chondro Das, Delowar Hossain Dilbar, Azgar Ali were among some of the best players early on and many of them did coaching for the national team later on. However, a lack of media coverage has meant that a lot of people don't know about them and their achievements. And when you don't have media coverage, getting sponsors is also a challenge," Mozammel informs.
What that translates to is kabaddi not being able to give the financial stability or support that one would get from playing professional cricket or professional football in the country.
Most of the top players currently are doing other jobs to maintain their livelihood.
"Now that we have a dedicated sports channel we are going to try our best to ensure that the games are shown. We try to get TV channels to show the semis and the final game of a local tournament, but to get that, we have to really face a lot of obstacles as there is a lack of sponsors. But you will notice, that the TV ratings for live kabaddi games are always among the top," Mozammel explains.
Masud Karim and Ahaduzzaman Munshi are two players that are doing well for the national team and are also playing in the Indian Pro kabaddi league.
"We are trying to ensure jobs to those playing kabaddi in different civil services such as in the navy, police and army, to make sure that these players can maintain a decent livelihood and so that more and more players can come through this pipeline," Mozammel says.
The future can be bright
Bangladesh are currently among the top five teams in the world in kabaddi but much work needs to be done to reach the top level.
Currently, kabaddi is very popular in the countryside and in the more rural parts of Bangladesh: "When we hold countrywide kabaddi tournaments, we can see a very level of participation from all the districts, and big crowds come to see the games. We usually get teams from 63 out of the 64 districts when we have these countrywide tournaments, Mozammel reveals.
A corporate league is being worked on and it would have started this year if not for the coronavirus pandemic.
There were also plans to have a multi-nation tournament with Bangladesh hosting and that will happen once things are back to normal from the pandemic.
"Hosting a big tournament involving other countries will cost us around 100 crore taka, but we are planning to do it next year. We also want to ensure that players get paid well in the corporate tournament. We want to ensure that the top players get paid one lakh taka while the minimum each player will make is 15 thousand."
While these will certainly be a boost for kabaddi in the upcoming days, the key will be to get more people viewing the sport and getting more people familiar with the players.
That will get the big sponsors interested and get the necessary money flowing in.
Kabaddi is the national sport in Bangladesh and it deserves to be where it belongs, covered in national pride and glory.