From the dusty fields in the rural sites to urban paparazzi, kabaddi's meteoric rise to stardom was once unthinkable. Over the last few years, the sport has captured India's imagination with Pro Kabaddi that presented new opportunities to Indian players and brought them fame and money.
One of them is Manjeet Chhillar, who revelled in the newfound popularity of the sport after being purchased by Jaipur Pink Panthers for 75.5 lakh in the highly-anticipated 2017 auction.
Manjeet has been a part of the transformation of Indian kabaddi players who were relatively unknown beyond their local arena.
"Oh, it's wonderful! Players are finally getting the recognition they deserve with lucrative deals," Manjeet, who plays for the Tamil Thalaivas now, told Firstpost.
Money has flown into Indian sport with players creating value like never before. Manjeet was the costliest buy just two seasons ago at 75.5 lakh, but in 2018 auctions, six players made it to the one crore club. Siddharth Desai was signed by Telegu Titans for Rs 1.45 crore and Nitin Tomar for Rs 1.20 crore as the most expensive buys this season.
"Earlier you could assemble a decent team in a budget of 2-3 crores. But now look at how the stock has risen. Teams splurge 1 crore on one star player now," the 32-year-old explains.
Pro Kabaddi, which has followed the Indian Premier League (IPL) model, has also clocked the fastest growth in terms of viewership and advertising revenues in its first five seasons. "Kabaddi can compete with cricket, why not? Once you develop an interest for the kabaddi, it's hard to not follow it regularly. That's the nature of the sport. People love to watch these players on the mat and the players love to perform," he adds.
The seventh edition of the PKL consists of 132 group-stage matches in a three-month-long format. In addition, there will be five matches in the playoffs, with the final on 19 October. Given the long format, peak fitness holds key to consistent performances week in, week out.
"Knowing that it's a long season, all players have undergone different kinds of preparation to maintain peak fitness levels. Even if there are breaks between our matches, we don't miss out on our training. The competition is getting tougher at PKL," says the 2016 World Cup winner.
The Indian all-rounder has been a part of the league since the first season where he played for Bengaluru Bulls. He spent the next two seasons with the Puneri Paltan before joining Jaipur Pink Panthers in 2017. Tamil Thalaivas added Manjeet to the roster for cut-price 20 lakh in 2018.
With three wins out of the first six games, Thalaivas are placed fifth in the points table. Ever since joining them, Manjeet has prioritised forming combinations within the team to perform better.
"In kabaddi, the combination is key. We've been guilty of conceding too many points at the start, but it is this chemistry between the players that has helped us win matches. The players we have are combining well. Some of them have played together too, even in local tournaments. Rahul (Chaudhari) has been in great touch too with all of us. The camp in Delhi made it a lot easier," says the former MVP.
Interestingly, Manjeet has formed an exciting partnership with India captain and teammate Ajay Thakur. The two have a great camaraderie and have shared the dressing room in five of the six PKL seasons, which has further strengthened their bond. Having played together with Bengaluru Bulls and Puneri Paltan, the duo were paired once again this season.
"We've played together since the first season, so there's a great understanding. We know each other's next move. The coordination has been there since the day we graced the mat in the first season," the Haryanvi defender says.
Last season, Manjeet played 19 matches and scored 59 tackle points. However, the team ended up being the second-worst scoring team in the league " finishing bottom in Zone B with 42 points from 22 games that included just five victories. Injuries in the fifth season and a bottom-placed finish last season have affected his game to an extent.
"It's not like I have endured bad seasons in the last couple of years. Performance has been better, individually. The results in past seasons weren't worth noting, as the team was handicapped due to injuries. It's a team sport and if key players get injured, the team struggles," explains Manjeet who believes that the current squad has the potential to fight till the last minute.
Manjeet is no stranger to a never-say-die attitude. After all, he has wrestled his way to the top with his fighting spirit.