United States hopes to make immediate impact in ancient sport of kabaddi

A raider tries to tag a defender and successfully escape the opposing team's side of the court to score points in kabaddi. Courtesy of Kabaddi World Cup

The ancient sport of kabaddi was born in India an estimated 4,000 years ago.

Imagine trying to learn it in six weeks, then playing against the top competitors in the world.

That's the challenge facing the United States team in the 2016 Kabaddi World Cup in Ahmedabad, India. But it's a test the American players are eager to embrace as they learn the finer points of a sport that might best be described as a combination of wrestling and tag.

"It's an easy sport to pick up, but it's a hard sport to master," said United States co-captain Kushim Rey. "It takes synchronicity. Everybody has to be on the same page at the same time, making the same moves and thinking the same way. If anyone is off the page or out of sync just a little bit, it shows."

Kabaddi (pronounced "kaba-DEE") ranks among India's most popular sports. It can be played in a traditional, beach or circle format and uses no equipment. Although kabaddi has historically been played outdoors, it has become regularly contested in arena settings this century.

The World Cup features a traditional format with international rules on a playing area about one-third the size of a basketball court. Two teams field seven players each, taking turns on offense, with one player raiding the other side of the court in an attempt to tag a defender and get back across the center line before being tackled. Complete rules can be found at the Kabaddi World Cup website.

The American team was selected this summer and worked with a coach from India for about a month in Jacksonville, Florida. All of the team members are in their 20s, most are from Florida and many have competed in football, basketball or track and field at various levels. They have continued to train and study in earnest upon arriving in Ahmedabad for the tournament.

"We're still conditioning and practicing, watching film and learning the game strategically," said team member Devin Anderson. "It's been an ongoing process. We've been eating, breathing and sleeping kabaddi."

Kabaddi is enjoying a surge in broadcast promotion, and organizers hope to grow the sport internationally. India is home to the Pro Kabaddi League, which has both men's and women's divisions. India won each of the two previous editions of the Kabaddi World Cup. Both times, Iran finished second, and Bangladesh placed third. This year's tournament opened with South Korea scoring a 34-32 upset win over India.

The United States team is facing a learning curve, of course. It opened with a 52-15 loss to Iran, which again is considered a top contender in the 12-team field. The Americans lost their second match 45-19 to Japan. They play their third match on Friday against Poland.

"It's definitely been a fun learning experience," said player Ronald Fields, a native of New Jersey. "But the difference between a good team and a great team is experience -- understanding the skill set and capitalizing on it."

Rey, who played football in junior college, notes similarities between the two sports. Both require speed, strength and sound tackling form. While teamwork is preached as crucial in football, Rey said it's even more important in kabaddi, in which defenders need to move together fluidly and precisely in order to succeed.

"It's the ultimate team sport," said Rey, who grew up in Jacksonville. "In football, if you give the ball to Barry Sanders, even if his line doesn't block, he could still make a play and score a touchdown. But here, if you're on defense and one person makes a wrong move, you can end up losing major points."

Rey and co-captain Ben Marcelus each point out the importance of the mental aspect of the sport, which in some ways is analogous to a high-speed chess match. Being able to correctly judge the consequences of your moves and anticipate the next moves of your opponents are crucial to winning.

"One slipup and you're out, so the toughest thing is awareness," said Marcelus, who grew up in Miami. "What is the next move? Anticipation is huge when it comes to kabaddi. Once you build your awareness, then your athleticism, talent, speed, agility and quickness -- everything will fall into place."

Denmar McKie, who is also from Miami, was sitting in a yoga class when he first learned of the opportunity to join the U.S. team. He received a text out of the blue from Rey that simply said, "Do you want to go to India?"

Yoga also originated thousands of years ago on the Indian subcontinent, and McKie said the two disciplines require similar flexibility and dexterity skills. Nevertheless, the American team is getting a baptism by fire against far more experienced kabaddi teams.

"A lot of us have sports backgrounds," McKie said. "We have speed, strength and agility, but unless you know the rhythm of the sport, it's difficult to adjust. We're playing against the best in the world. It's almost like trying to learn basketball by playing against the Golden State Warriors."

Regardless of where the Americans place in the final World Cup standings, Anderson said he and his teammates have already been positively influenced by this ancient sport and the Indian people and culture.

"It's a beautiful place, and the food is amazing," said Anderson, who lives in Tampa, Florida. "It's been a surreal experience as far as people walking up and taking selfies and asking for my autograph. It's been a life-changing experience, a humbling experience. India has been amazing."