The London School of Economics (LSE) boasts of over nine hectares of playing fields — an area which houses seven football and two rugby pitches apart from two cricket squares and a grass tennis court. Yet it is in a tiny room, called the badminton room, in the basement of the old building where a handful of students like Meredydd Rix have found their calling: kabaddi.
It is an unusual setting, a bunch of students in London coming together to play kabaddi on a makeshift mat, but one that’s becoming increasingly common in universities in England. Over the last few years, the humble and earthly sport of kabaddi has found a foothold in prestigious England universities like LSE, Imperial College London, University of Manchester, University of Birmingham and Kings College London.
It’s from makeshift mats like these that nine players — Rix, Joshua Enson, Philip Mottram, Someshwar Kalia, Jay Depala, Keshav Gupta, Milan Nayee, Youvraj Pandya and Tejash Depala — have made it to the Kabaddi World Cup, which will be held in Gujarat from October 7.
Rix, an International Relations student, and Jay Depala, who is a Maths and Economics student, both study at LSE. Mottram, a Political Economics student, studies at the University of Birmingham where Pandya also was a student until recently. Tejash Depala studies Sports Science at Finchley. Imperial College London has the most number of players — three — in the England team. Medical student Gupta, maths grad Nayee and final year medical student Enson hail from the London university. England skipper Kalia plays for the Aston University.
There are indicators that the sport is growing in universities, or unis as the Brits like to say. Clubs have now sprung up in the University of Warwick, Finchley College, University of Exeter and Aston University.
Just last month, LSE finalised a sponsorship deal with an Indian bank. They also have their first girls team this year. Imperial College formed one last year.
“Last year we had 30 members within the club. This year with the growth of our girls’ team and the sport itself, we forecast to have around 45 members as part of the club. In fact, we are actually currently working on recruiting new university students on to our club during the freshers fair at the beginning of university,” Jeffrey Thomas, president of the LSE kabaddi club, says.
Those picked in the team can represent LSE in tournaments like the National University Kabaddi League (NUKL) and the National Hindu Students Forum (NHSF) — tournaments run by all the universities collectively — or the Kabaddi Cup, hosted by the Imperial Kabaddi Club along with the England Kabaddi Association.
This year LSE will host its own inter-league competition where LSE societies like India Society, Pakistan Society, Tamil Society, Hindu Society and Karate Society will compete.
While the people playing the sport are still predominantly from South Asia, the ratio is now changing.
“Last year our captain was of Oriental ancestry. We have players of English and Caribbean backgrounds. One of our most successful players, Michael Dubery played for Bengaluru Bulls in the Pro Kabaddi League two seasons ago,” says Sumant Kapoor, who is the president of the Imperial College Kabaddi club.
Of course, the sport is not at the same level as football or rugby, which brings its own challenges.
Michael Dubery, an English professor at Imperial College, and engineering student Felix Li, were both originally in the India-bound kabaddi squad but had to back out after not being granted leaves.
“The sport is getting bigger in universities, not at the scale of sports like rugby or football.
Two of our players selected earlier could not make it as their university did not grant them leave for four weeks. If it was a sport like football, they definitely would have gotten leave. We hope after this World Cup, which will be shown on Sky Sports, things will get better,” said Ashok Das, founder of the England Kabaddi Association, who is also in India as the coach of the national team.
Lesser established clubs also have to pay to use facilities.
“We begin an average training session by collecting money to pay for the booked training room (university sports centre) as we have no funding currently. Then we lay the mats out as a group. Once the pitch lines have been made using tape, we practice for two hours,” says Rajinder Sehmar, captain of the kabaddi club at the University of Warwick.
While clubs at UoB and Warwick meet once a week, the “bigger” clubs like Imperial and LSE hold as many as three sessions.
Imperial Kabaddi Club, awarded the ‘Sports Club of the Year’ in the university-wide awards ceremony held last year by the Imperial College Union and SportImperial, have even recruited a dedicated strength and conditioning co-ordinator to their committee to run conditioning and fitness sessions.
“Currently, sports do not contribute to your academic repertoire. The university union acknowledges our contributions as ‘volunteers’ involved in running a sports club via the “Imperial Plus” programme. This is a means of recording volunteering hours and converts them into ECTS, the standard undergraduate points system in Europe,” points out Imperial College Kabaddi Club’s president Kapoor.
Even though there are no academic benefits for playing, most come to stay in touch with their South Asian roots or to try something different than the mass sports and end up being hooked.
For some, like Mottram and Dubery, it leads to a call-up with Pro Kabaddi League teams like Bengaluru Bulls.
For others, like Rix, it leads to a spot in the England team.
“Playing at the World Cup means everything to me. I never imagined in a million years that I would be given this opportunity. Representing one’s country and sport at the highest level is nerve-racking but incredibly exciting. My story of coming to the World Cup also shows that anyone can fulfil even their wildest dreams with enough determination and support,” Rix says.