Magazine

Kabaddi and its unlikely stars, England

Unknown in their own country, the England women's kabaddi team last week played to crowds of 40,000 people at the world cup in India, where they were mobbed by fans, given a police escort... and filmed, all the while, by the BBC's Asian Network.

As blood drips from the lip of Rosie Haigh, she calls out to her team mates.

"I'm alright - c'mon girls, let's do this," says Rosie, captain of the England women's kabaddi team.

They're playing in the 2012 kabaddi world cup in Punjab, India. It's the third world cup and the second time women teams have participated.

Kabaddi in this part of the world is massive - crowds of thousands cram into the stadiums to watch, and the women's event is very popular.

England captain Rosie Haigh
As England captain, Rosie Haigh has to field multiple media requests

The England team is made up of army personnel, teachers, a police officer, a sports development officer and a pig farmer.

They're all white, playing a sport dominated by South Asians.

Their coach Ashok Das is the main reason they're here. An ex-kabaddi player born in Punjab, Das introduced the sport to the British Army in 2005 as a way of keeping fit.

"Never did I think I would be here in my home leading a team of women playing a sport that I've grown up with," he says. "It's a dream come true."

The girls rarely get time to play or train together. More than half the team are in the army, stationed in countries like Germany and Afghanistan.

For some, like science teacher Sally Tidswall, this is their first taste of kabaddi competition.

"I have to pinch myself sometimes, it's such a surreal experience, We're playing in front of thousands of people who cheer for us and just want to touch us.

England players
The women took time out to enjoy India

"The people here are so genuine. The other day I wasn't feeling very well and I popped into the chemist, and the man behind the counter says 'I've just been watching you on telly' and he gave me a real big hug. They're so welcoming."

England's women played three group matches in three days. The first was against the USA. They travelled by coach from their base in Ludhiana to Tarn Tarun, a journey that took three hours.

Such is the interest in the England team - runners-up at the last World Cup - they always had a police escort. Many have a background in rugby, which lends itself very well to the game of kabaddi. They call themselves the "kabaddi warriors".

The game is played within a 70m-diameter circle and each team is made up of stoppers and raiders, who try to tag one of the four stoppers and then get back into their own half within 30 seconds without being caught. It can be very brutal.

"I made a few mistakes out there but I haven't done any training. I won't do that again," says Kelly-Sue Leech, who only arrived a day before the first match because of work commitments. But she's got her first "kill" under her belt, she adds, referring to her first successful raid.

"I got a bit of intimidation in there, the incentive is not to go down because the ground is so hard."

England easily defeated their American opponents but faced dark horses Malaysia next.

The women see themselves in the paper, and on television and are chased by reporters and paparazzi wherever they go.

When the team visited a local school the children clamoured for autographs.

"It's weird," says Rosie. "You look up in the hotel room, you're on telly. I opened the paper the other day and I was on the same page but a bigger picture than the Indian cricket team. There I am above Lionel Messi..."

Malaysia proved to be too strong and England had to defeat Turkmenistan in the final match to progress to the semi-finals.

Shower facilities were sometimes inadequate and organisation could be a bit chaotic but the players always received a magnificent welcome.

England team

"England best, England nice," the crowd shouts in broken English. Most have never seen women play kabaddi but enjoy the spectacle.

After England trounced Turkmenistan, some spectators started to leave - even though the Indian men's team had still to play.

Royal Engineer Lousie Redmond says she has never experienced anything like it.

"I've never played in front of this many people, it's a real buzz. You'll never get this in England. It's amazing!"

England lost in the semi-final to eventual winners India.

"They haven't won the match," says coach Ashok Das, "but they've won the hearts of the crowd."

Kabaddi, Kabaddi, Kabaddi is on BBC Radio's Asian Network at 1700 GMT on Thursday 20 December. Or listen again