The ballroom of a posh hotel in the Central suburbs was packed to capacity. Some of the officials even wore their respective team jerseys. The ambience was similar to the Indian Premier League auctions but without the cricketing superstars. Abhishek Bachchan, owner of Jaipur Pink Panthers, was the sole Bollywood star. Yet, the first ever auction of the forthcoming Pro Kabaddi League did not fall short of excitement, confusions, hush and gossips.
The eight franchises meant business and used their purse intelligently, lapping up champion players from both India and abroad.
With internationally-renowned auctioneer Bob Hayton with the gavel, Bengaluru Bulls scored first winning the bid for a star raider. They pocketed Ajay Thakur, Asian Indoor Games gold medallist, 2013, for Rs12.20 lakh. Later, Delhi roped in Surjeet Narwal, Asian Beach Games gold medallist, 2010, for the same amount but it was the Patna franchise that ate the hot cake of the auction. They paid Rs12.80 lakh – the highest bid of the day – for Rakesh Kumar, World Cup gold medallist, 2007.
Patna head coach Ramveer Singh Khokar said: "Rakesh alone is enough for the team. He has remained captain of India and is also an Arjuna awardee. Though a raider, he can play at any position. We have got some of the best players. Some of them are from Rakesh's village in Haryana."
After the quota of category 'A' players got over, team owners carefully spent for category 'B' players. Telugu Titans (Visakhapatnam) surprised the house, bidding for Deepak Niwas, a youngster from Jharkhand, for Rs12.60 lakh – the second-highest of the day.
There are four Pakistan players – Atif Waheed, Wajid Ali, Waseem Sajjad and Nasir Ali – in the tournament. Asked if having the players from across the border can invite trouble, Janardan Singh Gehlot, president of International and Asian Kabaddi Federation, said: "Veteran Shiv Sena and BJP leaders have grown up playing the sport. I am sure they will help us in this initiative. I remember Shiv Sena also arranging a kabaddi tournaments in the past at Shivaji Park (Dadar) when Bal Thackeray was alive."
While Atif and Wajid were bought by Telugu Titans for Rs4 lakh each, Waseem (Rs 5.20lakh) and Nasir (Rs4 lakh) were picked up by Patna and Jaipur Pink Panthers, respectively.
All the venues will be decked up for the league. So, do we see cheerleaders like IPL? "The cheerleaders in IPL are clad differently. It is kabaddi, it is the sport of our land. I think there should be a deeper cultural connect," said Charu Sharma, managing director of Mashal Sports, one of the brains behind the league.
Since doping is common in this kind of a sport, Sharma added: "We have a huge anti-doping programme in order. All the franchises have been told that it is not only the players who will get into trouble but also the coaches and officials."
Since kabaddi has not been covered extensively like other sports, the players are not household names but Sharma is confident that once it hits the television in the prime time, it will find its course and the approach of the audience will change.
Every franchise has a research team comprising former players and coaches who are aware of the players. Since the budget is limited, there is some amount of secrecy within them too to avoid multiple teams going for the same set of players.
There was also a confusion towards the end of the day. While selecting the 12th 'State Wild Card' player, Puneri Paltan, the Pune franchise, asked for Deepak Zazot, who is from Mumbai.
It was clarified by Sharma that since Maharashtra have two teams, the Pune team should avoid going for a Mumbai player. When Pune preferred Mayur Shivtarkar from the Maharashtra list, it was declared that he is also from Mumbai and he was mistakenly put in the wrong list. Deoraj Chaturvedi from the Kabaddi Federation promised to provide more options to Pune by Wednesday and sort things out.
However, a player selected in a team stays under a contract of two years.
"I request the owners not to change players. It will add stability to the league. A player can only be replaced if he is injured and the new player should be bought for the same amount," said Sharma.
Top five bids (Rs lakh)
1. Rakesh Kumar (Patna) – 12.80
2. Deepak Niwas (Telugu Titans) – 12.60
3. Ajay Thakur (Bengaluru Bulls) – 12.20
4. Surjeet Narwal (Delhi) – 12.20
5. Surjeet Singh (Bengal Warriors) – 12.00