With third Asian Games kabaddi gold, women’s team are stars abroad but forgotten at home

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There was a point in the women’s kabaddi final when, with India leading 19-17 and about three minutes left on the clock, Indian captain Ritu Negi stepped aside and conceded an all-out to Chinese Taipei. That one move handed them a two-point lead at a crucial moment and almost ruined the match for India.

India recovered brilliantly to win the match, and the gold, 25-24, but that unexpected and unexpected error by one of the team’s senior players was symptomatic of a larger problem facing Indian women’s kabaddi players: a sheer lack of top-flight tournaments, exposure and opportunity.

It was India’s third women’s kabaddi gold in four Asian Games but documents the success of a state of kabaddi where the standard of the men’s game has skyrocketed but the women’s sport is yet to find a launching pad to take off. The players stepped up and delivered but the system, as always, did little to help them grow.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that the players who have won this gold are almost completely unknown – even to those who work in the Indian sports administration. Try searching for pooja hatwala or flower queen online and you will get zero results. Outside the kabaddi heartland of Haryana and Maharashtra, these two names will remain unknown. Pooja, an excellent raider, India’s achievement in the Asian Games and Pushpa is one of the best all-rounders in Indian kabaddi. Name their male counterparts, you will get links to their profiles, previous matches, statistics and other information.

That inexperience and lack of big-match and clutch situations showed through the team. The Indian defenders were jumpy and unsure and made the inevitable errors to complicate what could have been an easy-on-the-nerves victory. India’s defenders, on three occasions, went out of bounds to give away easy points, the last of which put Chinese Taipei ahead with less than three minutes left.

Pooja, one of the youngest in the team, excelled throughout the tournament and was India’s go-to raider, but slipped in the final when she went out of bounds and not only conceded a point but also got herself eliminated.

Systematic reform is needed

Although the Pro Kabaddi League, the world’s largest kabaddi league, was launched in 2014 to promote the game, there is no equivalent for women’s kabaddi. The men became superstars, were on primetime television every night for three months and, most importantly, were compensated for it.

The men’s captain, Pawan Kumar Sehrawat, was the most expensive player in the PKL when he signed for Tamil Thalaivas for Rs 2.26 crore and several endorsements. In fact, he was the only kabaddi player to be featured in an advertisement for a sports drink produced by Limca, which featured athletes like Neeraj Chopra, Nikhat Zarin and Savita Punia.

Women have not been lucky enough to get even a percentage of that kind of reach. The last time the PKL hosts held a women’s tournament – a three-team exhibition tournament – was half a decade ago. Franchise owners such as Abhishek Bachchan, who owns PKL champions Jaipur Pink Panthers, have publicly expressed their interest in hosting the women’s PKL, and the PKL organizers have said they are exploring the possibility of a women’s tournament.

So what tournament do women play? Senior nationals, inter-state tournaments, inter-services tournaments and age-group Khelo India competitions. None of these are shown on television or mainstream media, except for the Khelo Games.

And that’s why, unless you watch the endless stream on YouTube, you won’t see Indian women kabaddi players on your screen again until the 2026 Asian Games. By then, a few players like Ritu, Priyanka Palania and Snehal Shinde might not even be around.

Meanwhile, since you probably won’t find any Indian team information anywhere else, here’s a basic info-file:

  • Ritu Negi: Right corner and captain – has an excellent dash and is a very strong defender. Was also part of the 2018 squad.

  • Nidhi Sharma: Rider – Not known for speed, but has really good evasion and ability.

  • Pushpa Rana: All Rounder – Traditionally plays as left cover, but can raid very well.

  • Sakshi KumariDefender – plays as a left corner. Has a great ankle hold.

  • Hand of worship:-Rider. India’s #1 Female Raider. Has lightning-quick feet and an excellent operating hand touch.

  • Priyanka Palania:- Defender. Can you play center as well as cover? He was in the 2018 squad.

  • Jyoti:- Skilled in all aspects. Played for Himachal Pradesh.

  • Akshima:-Rider. The young raider from Jharkhand who made his Asian Games debut.

  • Snehal Shinde:- Maharashtra, was one of the four members of the 2018 squad.

  • Pooja Narwal:-Rider. Plays for Indian Railways.

  • Sushma Sharma:-Rider. Played for Himachal Pradesh.

  • Smile owner:- Skilled in all aspects. Play for Haryana.

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