Ultimate Kho Kho: A season of learning for Rajasthan WarriorsSeptember 1, 2022
The maiden season of Ultimate Kho Kho has injected new life into one of India’s most widely played indigenous sports. The blitz and bling of a new format, made-for-television nature of the league, and (relatively) big-money contracts have been welcome developments for players and coaches alike. The stage is set, but not all teams have hit the mat running. With nine out of 10 rounds completed, Rajasthan Warriors has won just one out of nine games played so far and is at the bottom of the table.
The last place hurts more when the team’s star player Majahar Jamadar is topping the stat charts. The 31-year-old has the second highest attacking points (84) and dive points (66) in the league (till August 30).
Jamadar’s high has been negated by several lows, such as conceding the most points in a single game — 83 against Telugu Yoddhas.
Rajasthan has much soul-searching to do, and assess its strategy and team composition going forward. Narendra Kunder, the team’s head coach, believes the underwhelming first season is due to a simple factor —inexperience.
“This is a new format. Though most players are ready, some have not played like this (new format and under the spotlight) and are finding the changes difficult,” Kunder tells Sportstar after his team loses to Chennai Quick Guns.
One of the changes Kunder is referring to is the introduction of a new role: Wazir (think the Bishop in chess). An attacker can traditionally move only in one direction but a Wazir is allowed to attack on both sides. Also, the attacking team is allowed a ‘powerplay’ in each innings to field two wazirs, which makes a defender’s life harder.
“This is the first season and they (my team) are not comfortable with the twin Wazir tactic. They feel as if they just have to run. But, defending requires tactics like ring game and dodging,” says Kunder.
The inexperience has cost Rajasthan despite the efforts of seasoned players such as eight-time national medallist and Railways captain Jamadar, and South Asian Games gold medallist Akshay Ganpule.
“To be honest, we’ve not struck a balance between experienced and new players so far. It’s been a little uneven,” says Kunder. Jamadar, the Kolhapur-based attacker, has often embraced defence too, with seven not-outs to his name, the joint highest in the league.
Jamadar’s message to his team is clear. “ Haar rahe hain but jeet bhi jayenge. Apna bhi din ayega (We’re losing but will win. Our time, too, will come).”
Even the likes of Jamadar and other seniors in the team are experiencing the game under lights and cameras consistently for the first time. The seasoned players are wary of letting the pressure get to the team, especially the youngsters. Jamadar’s pro-tip is to focus on the basics. “Play with a free mind. Kisi se darna thodi hai (You don’t need to fear anyone)? Step on the field and give your 100 per cent.”
Coach Kunder is unwilling to be bogged down by the losses, insisting that the bigger purpose is to learn.
“We have meetings and discuss where we lost points that eventually cost us a game. It’s fine. You make mistakes. But how you reduce and rectify them is what will determine how much you learn. You’ve to play again, so, do not let your shoulders drop. If you repeat the mistakes then you’ve learnt nothing,” he says.
Another factor that Kunder feels will help his team fare better next season is more practice.
“Once the players return to their districts and clubs after the league, they will practice more and more and understand the strategies better. They will learn how to win dream runs, how to defend during a powerplay facing two wazirs.”
For now, Kunder’s faith and patience in his team, despite disappointing results, seem to be working. Rajasthan put in spirited efforts against Mumbai Khiladis and Odisha Juggernauts, and missed out on wins by a narrow margins.
On Sunday, playing against the second-placed team Gujarat Giants, Ganpule pulled off a four-point dream run in what was one of the moments of the tournament. A dream run is when a defending batch manages to stay on the mat for two minutes and thirty seconds. Every additional 30 seconds from thereon adds two more points to the defending batch’s tally.
The last man standing from his batch, Ganpule managed to stay on the mat for more than three minutes. He fell just seven seconds short of turning it into a six-point dream run. Though Rajasthan lost the match 40-42, Ganpule’s efforts were enough to hand his team its first point of the season. A loss by three points or fewer hands one point to the losing team in Ultimate Kho Kho.
Ganpule stands by Kunder. “I’ve never seen a coach in my life who has been this cool-minded after so many losses. He motivates us to start fresh and give our 100 per cent.”
With nothing to lose, Rajasthan has bounced back, in a way, with this point against the Giants and the side’s first win of the season against a second-string Chennai squad on Tuesday. Jamadar stands at 98 attacking points and will eye a century as the side plays its last game on Wednesday.
With a milestone and a lot of pride on offer, Kunder & Co. will hope to close out their season on a high.
“What I tell the team is, ‘ Abhi ghar jaake muh toh dikhaana hai (we have to go home and show our faces, after all),’” he says.