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“I played for a very long time. I will try that, as a coach – in a new season and new role – I can do something exceptional.”
He represented India in kabaddi for over a decade, brought glory to the nation several times over the years, captained the team to a World Cup title, and when the ‘time’ came, retired.
Anup Kumar was 35, and could see the next crop of players under him, excelling. Indian kabaddi’s ‘captain cool’ then announced his decision to hand over the reins to these youngsters, retiring post the 2018 edition of the Pro Kabaddi League.
“Everything has a time, including a player. It was my time. As long as my game was good and I was performing, I played. When I started feeling like the youngsters are good and getting a hold on the game... And it happens, senior players slowly take retirement.”Anup Kumar
An illustrious career that began in 2006, Anup Kumar won golds at the Asian Games in 2010 and then 2014. He also led India to the World Cup title in 2016. But when it came to picking a stand-out moment or perhaps his favourite from the journey, the Haryana player picked the moment he was awarded the Arjun Award.
“It's hard to pick (one stand-out moment). Everything is the best for me. The biggest thing – one would be winning a medal for my country. Every player who starts competing has a dream of representing their country. And if they represent their country and win a gold that's the biggest thing for them,” he said.
“Winning a medal for my country is a matter of pride for me. The other is the Arjuna Award conferred to me by Indian government in 2012. That was a very special day and I’ll always remember it.”
But over two decades after Anup had his first brush with kabaddi, players aren’t just taking up the sport with an eye on getting that ‘secure’ government job. Once just a rural Indian game, kabaddi now attracts players for the opportunity the Pro Kabaddi League gives, besides, of course, the major increase in popularity of the sport.
Speaking about the difference in the sport when he joined and now, Anup said, “Earlier, there weren't as many facilities. There were very few departments for jobs. Now, if there's a player who performs well I don't think he needs a job. He will first play the league, and then show the entire country and world, his capabilities and qualities”.
“The league has now become a very good platform. In our time, there was no such thing. We had to first work hard and figure out where we could get a job because we had to secure our lives. Now, even if a player plays the PKL his life is secure.”
Though he was in the later years of his career when the PKL started, Anup had his share of success in the six seasons he played. Captaining U Mumba for the five editions of the tournament, Anup won the Most Valuable Player award in the league’s opening season and led his team to the title in 2015. His first season with the Abhishek Bachchan-owned Jaipur Pink Panthers was also his last.
“I consider myself very fortunate that I had a chance to play in the league. Before me, there were many players who were outstanding (but) never got the opportunity. They never came on TV and no one knows about them. But we’ve seen them play live and even lived with them.”
“If they didn't even get a chance, how poor is their luck. At least I got the chance. I'm very happy that when the Pro Kabaddi League started I could play. I couldn't make the team win the season but I was named the Most Valuable Player, which is a very big thing for me,” he said.
In 2018, Anup Kumar retired as a player, but didn’t end his association with the sport. Soon after he announced his decision, offers to join the support staff of the PKL franchises started flooding in. And while he contemplated doing commentary, Anup eventually decided to join the Pro Kabaddi franchise Puneri Paltan as their head coach for the seventh and ongoing season.
Asked if he would consider coaching the Indian kabaddi team, Anup was all for it.
“I can't be sure that will happen. But I will definitely try,” he said.
“I would like to request my federation, its president, and the IOA – where we get our approval from – that if they think Anup Kumar is a coach of that level, I would ask them to give me a chance. I would want that my country, and the players who represent them can train well and win medals.”Anup Kumar