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Passion, dreams, hardships unite Kho Kho League players

Last week, kho kho, an indigenous sport, had its first taste of the modern world of private, franchise-based leagues when the first edition of the Ultimate Kho Kho started in Pune, Maharashtra. From the dusty courts, the sport moved to the mats with hi-tech cameras covering all the high-speed action and sending the pictures in real time to the people’s living rooms through TV and streaming services.

There are physios to help the players with injuries, masseurs to help with the recovery and coaches to lay down the strategies. In coming years, the revamp may change the fortune of the sport and, along with that, of the players who mostly come from the families with little means. Here, ET Sport brings you the stories of four such players:

Age: 21
Hometown: Trivandrum, Kerala
Position: All Rounder
Team: Rajasthan Warriors

Bindhu was sent to an orphanage to study because her family didn’t have enough money to provide for her education. While studying at the orphanage, alongside other things, she also learned kho kho. When she got married and had twin sons, she passed on the basic knowledge of the sport to her children. Although kho kho wasn’t a lucrative career option back then, she still encouraged them to take up the sport in the school.

Now, one of her sons, Nikhil B, is part of Rajasthan Warriors in India’s firstever franchise-based kho kho league. “When my mother took us to the school for admission, she saw children playing kho kho. She got me enrolled there. That’s how I started playing kho kho,” said the 21-year-old Nikhil. “Now my parents are very excited to see me play on TV,” he added.

It was a struggle to raise two kids with the meagre salary that his father earned as a truck driver. “He was the only earning member of the family. He used to earn around Rs 10,000-12,000. It was very difficult,” he said.

It’s still difficult, though his twin brother, Nidhim, has started pitching in some money that he earns through odd jobs.

“My brother does some odd jobs and helps me with my shoes, my travelling etc. He is working while studying to help me, for my future,” Nikhil said adding that his brother is preparing for state Public Service Commission exams and trying his luck for a job in the Army too. Nikhil himself wants to pursue Physical Education and will invest the money in his studies. It may not be much, but it’s something.

Age: 22
Hometown: Delhi
Position: Defender
Team: Odisha Juggernauts

Vishal’s family never put any restrictions on him. All they ever expected in return was that he didn’t misuse the freedom given to him. Given how he has grown up to be one of the best kho kho players in the country, he has lived up to his family’s expectations.

The 22-year-old from Delhi learned to be responsible very early in his life. He was just 12 years old when he lost his father to tuberculosis in 2012.

The death of the only earning hand of the seven-member family threatened to upend their lives. Thanks to his mother’s resolve and eldest sister’s hard work, they managed to remain afloat. Both of them worked in small factories to keep food on the table and roof on the head. Vishal, barely in his teens, also realised his responsibilities and started contributing in whatever ways he could.

Despite all the problems, he didn’t let kho kho slip out of his life. He has been playing the sport since his age barely hit the double digits. The sport also helped him move out of a government school to a private school. “Once when we won an event, a private school coach came to meet us. He helped me get admission in a private school (Saraswati Bal Mandir). From 6th to 12th, I studied there free of cost,” Vishal said, adding that it was a big help, especially after his father’s death. Tough times again troubled Vishal’s family when both his mother and sister lost their jobs during the Covid-19 pandemic. He was still in his college.

Luckily, he found a job in a local Mother Dairy unit where he used to load vegetables on to truck. A couple of months later, through an acquaintance, he moved to a slightly better-paying job as a delivery boy at a local Amazon store.

Last year, during the senior nationals, Vishal was informed about his selection for the kho kho camp for the UKK. He was later picked in Category A, for which he will receive Rs 5 lakh. He plans to use that money, along with the savings his family has, to buy a home.

Age: 29
Hometown: Ichalkaranji, Kolhapur district, Maharashtra
Position: Defender
Team: Chennai Quickguns

Ichalkaranji, a city in Kolhapur district of Maharashtra, is known as ‘Manchester of Maharashtra’ for its textile manufacturing units. While Manchester, in modern times, is known for great football teams, Ichalkaranji isn’t anywhere on the football map. The city is more into sports like cricket and kho kho. It’s not a surprise, then, that Pritam Chougule loves both kho kho and cricket (his favourite cricketer is former India men’s cricket team captain MS Dhoni).

While cricket is India’s favourite sport and its superstars earn in millions, indigenous kho kho is only beginning to see big investments. “Never thought our kho kho will see such good days,” Chougule, a defender with Chennai Quickguns, said about the UKK. “It’s like a dream.”

Like many others, Chougule started playing kho kho with friends in school and it gradually became his career of choice. He has won four medals, including gold, at the senior nationals but could never break into the national team. (“That’s my last dream,” he said.)

The 29-year-old Chougule works as a manager in a local textile company and earns around Rs 20,000 per month. He is taken leaves to play in the UKK, for which he will lose part or full salary. But he is not complaining. “…the owner of my company is good. I have got a lot of support from him. You don’t get so many leaves in a private job,” he said.

Chougule lives a very hectic life, shuttling between his passion and family responsibilities. He wakes up at 5 in the morning, practices from 6 to 7:30 before heading to office. He again goes for training in the night, from 8pm to 10pm. Seeing him work so hard for years, some people suggested him to leave the sport. “For the last 3-4 years, there was talk that the UKK is going to happen. So that hope kept me going. I continued my training. Finally, it has happened,” Chougule said.

Chougule, who is in Category D, wants to use whatever money he will get to repay the home loan he took last year.

Age: 32
Position: Attacker
Hometown: Navi Mumbai, Maharashtra
Team: Gujarat Giants

As a youngster, Ranjan Shetty was athletic and played multiple sports, including kabaddi and kho kho. When he was around 15 years old, one of his friends, with whom he used to play kho kho in spare time, suggested him to join his club, Vihang Kreeda Mandal (VKM).

The same evening, he went to the VKM to see what happens there. He immediately liked the atmosphere and joined the club next day.

But kho kho has never been a lucrative career in the country and his family wanted him to focus on his studies so that he can get a job and share some financial burden. He used to help out his father at his paan shop in Airoli, but it couldn’t have been a long-term option. His growth as a kho kho player wasn’t translating into financial gains. Things turned for better in 2010 when he got selected in the Maharashtra team for the senior nationals. Next year, he got a government job. “I was just 20 when I got recruited in the Western Railways as junior clerk,” said Ranjan.

At the Western Railways, Shetty’s kho kho career flourished as he went on to win several medals (six golds and two silvers) for the railways at the senior nationals and even represented India at the 2016 South Asian Games, where India won gold.

Few years back, however, he wasn’t sure about continuing with the sport. He had achieved everything at the national level and wasn’t sure of another India call-up. He shifted his focus from kho kho to his job but realised he wasn’t even a graduate. He had left his B.Com degree incomplete after getting the job since he hardly had any time between job and kho kho training. “Three years back I completed my graduation because it was needed for promotion,” said Shetty, who is now an office superintendent.

The launch of the UKK, however, reignited his passion for kho kho. At 32, Shetty is one of the oldest and most experienced players in the league. He finds the UKK a “different experience altogether.”

“When we used to play in the nationals, the audience was very limited. Now, this tournament is live worldwide. So, it feels great that the world is watching us playing,” said Shetty, who is in Category A and will earn Rs 5 lakh from the tournament. “I have no savings. So I will save this money,” he said.

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