Former Indian captain S. Rajarathinam believes playing kabaddi on synthetic mat has taken away the charm and essence of the game.
The 60-year-year-old, who captained India to the Asian Games gold medal twice, said that the introduction of mat has also been detrimental to the Indian dominance in the game. India failed to win the Asian Games gold for the first time in Jakarta two years ago, where the game was played on mat.
The mat was introduced at a sanctioned international competition for the first time at the Malaysian Open in 2002 and subsequently adopted at the Asian Games in Busan the same year.
“Leaving aside that the Indian players were over-confident against their rivals including Iran in the final, the downfall was also because our players were not fully adapted with the game played on mat,” said Rajarathinam, who was awarded the Arjuna Award in 1994. The Arjuna Award is the top Indian award for sportsman in the country.
The outspoken Rajarathinam, who hails from Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu, retired soon after and took up coaching.
“Kabaddi has been a rural game all the while and in many part of India they still play the game on clay courts. They cannot afford the modern game, where they not only have to buy the mat but also the shoes required,” said Rajarathinam, who himself picked up the game playing barefooted on clay courts in his home village of Ganapathipuram.
His skillful footwork and robust game soon caught the eyes of the selectors and he went on to represent his district team in 1975 and the state team where he helped Tamil Nadu to win the national title three times. He was also a member of the Indian Railways team, considered as one of, if not the best kabaddi club in the country.
Rajarathinam made his debut for India at the 1987 South Asian Federation Games in Calcutta and as the vice-captain of the Indian team at the 1990 Asian Games. After helping India win the gold that year, Rajarathinam took over the reins from Hardeep Singh as the captain at the 1994 Asiad.
“Playing on clay and on mat is fundamentally different. There are many skills that were required in playing on clay that has no place now,” said Rajarathinam.
He said that speed and emphasized more on the defensive game.
“Look at how hockey had fundamentally changed after the switch from grass to astroturf. On grass, stick-work was an important skill for the players, but now it is all about speed and fitness,” said Rajarathinam, who is married to Gladys.
Both his daughters Niveetha and Jeevitha were also kabaddi players. Niveetha was a part of the state team that won the three national championships while Jeevitha was the former Indian team captain. The duo have now settled down in the United States after their marriage.
“Playing on mat, a player who falls down has almost no chance of breaking free from the defense but on clay, the surface gives the players better options. A defensive player can afford to make a mistake on mat as playing on mat gives the other defensive players to cover quickly,” said Rajarathinam.
“To put it simply you can look at the reaction speed of a squirrel and a lizard that falls off a tree. The squirrel will react faster while the lizard will be dazed. Falling on mat is like the lizard, before a raider reacts the defense is already atop him,” said Rajarathinam.
He added that India’s defeat to Iran at the 2018 Asian Games was helped by the adaptability of the Iranian defense with the speed playing on mat.
“Indian players pick up their basics, playing on clay and make the transition to mat. But the Iranians have always played on mat and they are able to play a much stronger defensive game,” said Rajarathinam.
He said that while the Indian team boasted of 12 exceptional players, the modern game no longer needs as much depth at the international level.
“The speed of the game has made defence the priority and a team with just a good raider can still perform well with just one good raider,” he said.
Rajarathinam said that the introduction of the compulsory productive second raid had increased the intensity and speed of the game.
Under the World Kabaddi rules, every second raid following and empty raid must have a result, either with the raider picking up a point or the defence being able to stop the raider.
Rajarathinam also pointed out to the frequency of players picking up ankle and knee injuries, playing on mat as limiting the time top players can be at their best.
“From what I see, top internationals career may last maybe three to five years now, while those of us who played our entire career on clay were able to stretch it to as many as ten years,” said Rajarathinam, who had coached the Indian national team after retiring.
He had also coached the formidable Air India club as well as the Thailand teams.
He held numerous positions including as India’s Sports Monitoring Committee and as the president of the Tamil Nadu Sportsman Association.
The colourful Rajarathinam sees both his appearances at the Asian Games as the highlight of his career.
At the 1990 Games in Beijing, Rajarathinam was playing alongside several legends of international kabaddi including the likes of Raju Bhavsar and Ashok Shinde. The Indian team was hardly threatened by any of the rivals as they won all their five matches scoring 234 points against their rivals and conceding only 84. Their dominance was evident as they finished with a 150 points difference in the match while the only other team to get a positive points difference was Pakistan with a mere 4 point difference.
“This was the first time that kabaddi was included at the Asian Games and we wanted show the world our best. It was a memorable occasion as the kabaddi gold was also the only gold that India won at the Games that year,” said Rajarathinam.
But winning the gold four years later in Hiroshima was fraught with controversies.
The crunch match against Pakistan was abandoned in controversial circumstances when the scores were tied 19-all with more than a minute left for the final whistle.
“We could have won the match, but Pakistan kept protesting the decisions and a replay was ordered by the technical committee. The management consulted with me as the captain and we agreed to replay the match,” said Rajarathinam.
The team, which also comprised of the likes of Ashok Shinde, K. Baskaran and P. Ganeshan, stepped up a gear in the replay, crushing Pakistan 42-20.
As in 1990, the Indian team won all their round robin matches to emerge as champions.
“The problems did not finish there as the Pakistan officials than complained that I played in the tournament with doping. I had to go for the test and the prize presentation was only held after the test that was later negative,” said Rajarathinam.
Rajarathinam, who was also a member of the Amateur Kabaddi Federation of India (AKFI) selection committee, is still very much involved in kabaddi but no longer with the AKFI.
He quit the AKFI after not agreeing with the manner the selection of players for national team were made and also the running of the association.
He joined the rival New Kabaddi Federation (NKFI) in 2018 as is now the President of its Tamil Nadu chapter.
Rajarathinam together with another former Indian captain Honnappa Gowda had also filed a legal action against the AKFI for their improper selection of national players for the Jakarta Asian Games.
“This was done the year before the Games. While the players selected were good, they were not the best available in India. We were fed up with the biased selections that denied players who had worked hard for their entire life to make the team,” said Rajarathinam.
Numerous cases were filed against mismanagement of the AKFI by several former players and officials and the AKFI was subsequently suspended as is still under administration of a court appointed former judge.
“Many players like me, came up the hard way in the game from grassroot level and we did not the younger generation to go through the same hardship and bias treatment,” said Rajarathinam.
Rajarathinam still believes that kabaddi can be a truly global game with the right people managing the future of the game.