Kabaddi has grown exponentially over the last few years ever since the inception of vivo Pro Kabaddi in 2014. While it’s mostly the players and sometimes even the coaches that get all the plaudits, what often goes under the radar is the role that referees and other match officials play in making kabaddi such an exciting spectacle to watch. Make no mistake, good refereeing and match officiating are integral for audiences to enjoy a great match. 

Ahead of vivo Pro Kabaddi Season 9, two physical weeklong camps are organised by Mashal Sport for referees. One of the many aims of these camps was for referees to have easy access to teams and players to make officiating and training easier for them: 

The first camp was held at the Kolhapur academy of Mr E Prasad Rao, Technical Director of vivo Pro Kabaddi, and a couple of its objectives like improving referees' fitness and teaching pressure handling techniques were discussed over the course of the week. Among others, a few more subjects that were discussed at this camp included referees getting a better understanding of technical rules, controlling their body language and gestures on the mat as well as maintaining integrity when it comes to decision-making.

The fast paced nature of the sport means that match officials need to be on top of their game constantly and make correct decisions in fractions of a second, which is by no means easy. With that in mind, we caught up with Mr E Prasad Rao for some insights into how referees are trained to handle the pressure of the blinding lights that come with the grand stage which vivo Pro Kabaddi has to offer.

While discussing how well prepared match officials are for vivo Pro Kabaddi, Mr Rao touched on the versatile nature of a modern kabaddi match official. After all, vivo Pro Kabaddi referees are trained to carry out multiple responsibilities beyond just in-match decision-making. The multi-dimensional role of a vivo Pro Kabaddi official entrusts them with the responsibilities of being a part of the technical desk and also fulfilling scoring and timing duties. While they don’t do all these separate duties simultaneously, they are trained to carry out all of the above aspects in a smooth and efficient manner. Furthemore, they are also trained to fulfil duties in the technical control room from where they supervise the on-field referees to ensure everything runs smoothly. 

Shedding some light on the various duties of a vivo Pro Kabaddi referee, Mr Rao said:  “Coaching classes have been run even earlier as well for the referees. We have conducted classes for the international referees’ course… earlier they had a designated role as a referee. Now the same person can either work as a referee, umpire, or scorer. He can be a line umpire in one of the matches and can be an assistant scorer in some others.” 

Mr Rao believes the current batch of match officials in vivo Pro Kabaddi are some of the best because of the demands that are placed on them. “Just like how players are picked for a franchise. Similarly, we used to go to different venues like Delhi and Haryana and get them onboard. Mashal Sports used to send a committee to identify talents that had the required background and fitness to become a referee. It isn’t like if you have officiated in four National Kabaddi Championships then you will be called a good referee. We have designed parameters like what should be their speed, strength, ability, officiating ability, whistling, signalling, body positioning and language. Based on these parameters, we then shortlist the best 60-70 officials from the entire country.”

He went on to mention some of the tests a match official must clear to become a referee in vivo Pro Kabaddi. “We trained them at a particular location. For example, we trained them in Raigad in the first year. We also organised training in Mumbai several times. The officials were also trained simultaneously whenever the players used to do match practice in the evening. So, after they were trained, we conducted different types of physical tests and they could join vivo Pro Kabaddi only after they cleared this gruelling and rigorous selection process,” he said.

Mr Rao further stated that the league covered 50 to 60 venues to assemble the 60 to 70 match officials who then trained with players during match practice sessions before eventually settling with the 30 to 35 select few officials picked for vivo Pro Kabaddi. He also revealed how not all match officials in the past were Indian as he cited examples of referees from UK, Kenya, Japan, Korea and Bangladesh officiating in previous editions of vivo PKL.

No longer on the periphery in the minds of the audience, vivo Pro Kabaddi referees are well recognised these days with fans now frequently engaging with them for selfies and autographs while a few have even received advertising opportunities. 

While summarising the evolution of referees in vivo Pro Kabaddi, Mr Rao stated: “Referees have made a name for themselves; they [now] get recognised by the masses. The recognition which was missing [earlier] can be seen these days. Earlier players also didn’t have any such recognition, forget about referees.” 

He also insisted that some players who never wanted to become an official are now keen to be one, while players who are not active in kabaddi any longer want to come back as an official. Furthermore, Mr Rao stated that many of the current officials have played kabaddi at the national level which is a good sign for the game.

Looking ahead to the action on the mat for vivo Pro Kabaddi Season 9, Mr Rao feels that it is difficult to name one outright favourite before the start of the campaign. “It would be difficult to predict the winner. I’ll tell you why. It is because most of the players in these teams are young. Previously, it was all about popular names and experienced players. Now, these teams are loaded with 60-70 per cent of new talent. If not new, they will have an experience of maybe a year or two and are still playing magnificently. It will be difficult to pick the game of such players before the end of the first leg.”

Season 9 of vivo Pro Kabaddi will begin from October 7 with defending champions Dabang Delhi K.C. crossing swords with U Mumba in the first match of the new campaign at the Shree Kanteerava Indoor Stadium in Bengaluru.

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