London: A Bollywood song and dance routine to kick off the proceedings, a live DJ to entertain the steady trickle of expats filled with nostalgia and some old-fashioned beat of the dhol reverberated at the famous O2 arena as the Wave World Kabaddi League kicked off here Saturday.
The mega-structure which mostly plays host to music concerts and basketball games today witnessed an inherently Indian sport going global in an ambitious league spread across three continents.
In the opening match, United Singhs, co-owned by Bollywood star Sonakshi Sinha, squared off against Punjab Thunder, co-owned by another Bollywood actor, Rajat Bedi.
Sonakshi was nowhere to be seen but her team emerged triumphant 68-51 in a thoroughly entertaining contest.
The crowd was sparse but organizers remain hopeful of the numbers picking up as the tournament progresses. For those who turned up, there was a Bollywood-style song-and-dance act to begin with in which Sukhwinder Singh`s anthem for the league was played out.
“The number of fans will go up as we progress. A gigantic effort has been made to organize this league and it is a unique initiative and it will show results in some time,” said WKL Commissioner and former India hockey captain Pargat Singh.
“Any new initiative does take sometime to realise its true potential and WKL will also grow,” he added.
The stamp of Punjab, where kabaddi remains an immensely popular rural sport, was all too visible with the beat of the traditional dhol greeting the players as they made their way into the arena.
“It is good to see a traditional sport on such a huge sport. It`s a sport which we have grown up playing and to see it on such a big stage is very joyful,” said a septuagenarian fan, who claimed to have undertaken a more than an hour long journey to be at the arena for the WKL inauguration.
The matches are being played as per the circle kabaddi rules, under which the body weight of players cannot be less than 75kg. Another aspect which makes the format different from the regular is the fact that it is a one-on-one contest between the raider and the stopper he touches before attempting to flee to his `Pala`.
This allows for a more balanced contest as teams cannot indulge in pile-ups to block the raider. United held a 30-26 lead after the first two quarters of 12 minutes each and widened the gap with a dominating show in the next two quarters.
United managed to get the better of the Vancuover-based Punjab Thunder even though the latter team looked sharper to begin with. Sandeep Singh was the standout performer for United, picking up 12 points to be named man-of-the-match.
“I am very happy with this start and hopefully I will carry this form into the upcoming matches as well,” said Sandeep.
For Punjab, Sarabjeet Singh also grabbed 12 points but his individual efforts in the rival ?pala? were not supported by his colleagues.
Later today, Bollywood star Akshay Kumar-owned Khalsa Warriors will square off against Yo Yo Tigers, a team co-owned by famous Punjabi rapper Yo Yo Honey Singh.
The tournament is following the double round robin format with a total of 94 matches — 90 league games and four playoffs — and has 144 international players on its roster.
Every team will play the other seven thrice before the top four qualify for the play-offs. The final will be played in Mohali on December 14.
The venues for the league include eight international (London, Birmingham, Dubai, New York, Los Angeles, Sacramento, Vancouver, Toronto) and six Indian (New Delhi, Jalandhar, Ludhiana, Bhatinda, Amritsar, Mohali) cities.