The auto rickshaw tries to slither past the busy traffic near the old Delhi railway station. The driver Harish Kumar needs to drop his passengers and return in time for his Sepaktakraw practice session at the Indira Gandhi Stadium. He cannot afford his form to dip as the selection for the Asian Games is on the cards. A berth in the team could well be the ticket to the elusive medal and some financial gains that would help him to focus solely on the game.
The 21-year-old's hard work was finally rewarded when he broke into the Asian Games team regu squad and became a part of history in Palembang. Harish was an important part of the team and one of the youngest members of the Indian side that went on to clinch their maiden Asian Games medal in Sepaktakraw.
Amidst the euphoria surrounding the success of wrestlers and shooters, the bronze in Sepaktakraw may not have made the headlines but it is a life changing moment for players like Harish. “This is the biggest moment of our sporting careers. The feeling is yet to sink in. Hopefully, there will be more recognition for the sport,’’ says Hem Raj, the chief coach of the team tells Firstpost from Palembang.
The team was feeling the pressure to deliver at the Asian Games once the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) refused to clear the football team. Fingers were pointed at how sports like Sepaktakraw and wushu got the nod ahead of football. “The sport may lack the mass appeal and therefore the performance of the team hardly gets noticed. Therefore when football failed to make the cut, we were worried if our team will get the nod,’’ adds Hem Raj.
However, the sport has been included in the priority list of the Sports Ministry which has ensured that the players have been able to take part in a number of international events. In the lead up to the Asian Games, the government had sanctioned a two-month training schedule in Thailand. This was a big boost for the team as the squad trained alongside the top teams in the country that is the powerhouse of world Sepaktakraw.
The Indian team currently boasts of a number of experienced campaigners like Niken Singh from Manipur and Sandeep Kumar from Delhi who are taking part in their third Asian Games. Along with Harish, the other talented youngsters in the squad include Akash Yumnam Singh and Henry Singh Wahengbam. Yumnam, known for his thunderbolt bicycle kicks is nursing a slight knee injury which has slightly hampered his performance.
Sepaktakraw was a demonstration sport in the 1982 Asian Games in New Delhi but struggled to find takers in India. It was only in 1999 when the National Games were staged in Manipur, that the sport started to gain popularity. “During the National Games, the Manipur Government announced that medal winners in all the sports will be given government jobs. This was the perfect incentive and many of the Manipuri youths took up the sport seriously hoping that a medal will help them to overcome poverty,” says Yogender Singh Dahiya, president of the Indian Sepaktakraw Association.
The game originated in South East Asia with the name of the sport being a combination of Malay and Thai words. Sepak is kick in Malay while Takraw means an woven ball in Thai language. Played with a ball made of synthetic fibre on a playing arena almost the size of a badminton court, the games involve using your feet, knee, chest and head to touch the ball. But it is the gravity-defying powerful bicycle kicks from the strikers that make the game stand out.
India’s bronze medal came in the team regu event where each team has 12 members. A team fields a different group of three players in each of the three sets. Boosted by their heroic exploits in the team regu event, India is also aiming for a podium finish in the regu event in the Asian Games. In regu event, each team will have three players playing all the three sets. Niken Singh, Sandeep Kumar, Askash Yumnam Singh, Harish Kumar and Henry Singh make up the five member regu team.
After the Asian Games, the next big test for the Indian team will be the World Championship to be staged next month in Thailand. “Thailand and Malaysia are expected to dominate but we are a rising power along with Iran, Germany and Philippines,’’ predicts Dahiya. “In the long run, hopefully, the improved showing of our boys in events like the Asian Games will help them to get noticed and they will get contracts in the lucrative leagues played in Thailand.’’
The bronze medal at the Asian Games has brought the sport into the limelight and for players like Harish, it can bring about a difference in their lives.