Republished from www.gosports.com.my
Nicholas Cunningham has no doubt that kabaddi would capture the imagination of Australians eventually; despite the hurdles it faces now.
“The team and management has shown huge resilience at times to persist with the sport when organisation hasn’t been up to scratch due to facilities, lack of coaches, financial reasons etc. For me this demonstrates how good the sport can be in Australia, as we love most sport here, it just takes time,” said Nicholas, who has represented Australia at two World Cups.
Australia can claim to be a sporting country that has excelled in team sports. The island national, in the past, has won world titles in team sports including cricket, hockey, rugby, netball and tennis.
“Kabaddi is relatively unknown but with the high number of Indians living in Australia the sport is known within certain areas. Australia has a long history with sports like cricket and various football codes so it will take a long time until kabaddi is perceived on the same level as those sports, “admitted the 26-year-old.
Nicholas added that most Australians still do not know the sport at all.
“A lot of people I tell about the sport have never heard of it. It’s frustrating at times for the team because we are playing international events and seeing how other countries have access to facilities and such, whereas in Australia it is a minority sport,” he said.
The lanky raider picked up the game as a group of Australians were scouting for players to represent the country at World Cup in India in 2016.
“The president of my local football (Aussie rules football) club caught wind that the sport was coming to Australia led by some ex AFL players. Through this I was allowed to go check it out,” said Nicholas.
Nicholas was picked for the tournament and underwent training under the guidance of two Indian coaches. But his association with the game was brief as there were no follow-up activities after the World Cup.
“It wasn’t until 2018 via off chance Facebook messaging with Kuldeep (who was his teammate in 2016) that I played the sport again. This is when I met Jagjit Singh who now manages all things kabaddi Australia,” said Nicholas.
Jagjit formed the Australian Kabaddi Association under the auspices of a new world governing body for the sport, World Kabaddi in 2018. He is also the current Kabaddi Oceania president and World Kabaddi vice-president.
“Things took off after this as we went to New Zealand where we all did well, and I did well enough that I was able to go to the IIPKL which wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t met Jagjit in 2018,” said Nicholas.
Nicholas was the only player from Oceania to get the chance to participate at the inaugural Indo International Premier Kabaddi League (IIPKL) in India last year.
“I was very lucky to go through from playing amateur footy to playing kabaddi in India initially, and then in 2018 it was just a domino effect of the off chance Facebook message, to playing more, training more, improving more, and getting opportunities,” said Nicholas, who holds a Sports Science degree from Victoria University.
“Because kabaddi is not a huge sport in Australia or Australian culture, it means all our games have to be played in other countries where the sport is more established. My friends and family think it’s pretty cool that I get to go overseas to compete!“ said Nicholas.
Since 2018, Nicholas had also played at the Auckland Cup in 2018, the 2019 Melaka World Cup Kabaddi and the 2019 Sikh Games representing Australia.
“My family has been supportive, and at times confused, especially as my mum comes from India and her parents couldn’t believe kabaddi had progressed to the world stage from a game that kids would play in the street. My parents were very excited for my first tournament,” said Nicholas.
Growing up in Melbourne, Nicholas played plenty of cricket and footy and occasionally golf. While he still plays footy, Nicholas said that kabaddi has taken over as his number one sport.
He also recalled that his performance in his debut tournament in India was not all that inspiring.
“Srinivasreddy Lingampally was our coach in 2016. I’m not sure he liked me that much as a player and would have been disappointed with my results in that year’s tournament, but I learnt a lot from him, particularly attitude and body language wise, as he was my/our first coach,” said Nicholas.
He was quick to add that his foray at the IIPKL also greatly influenced his game.
“All the other foreign import players in the IIPKL, as well as our coaches there, also really influenced me. I took note of every technical detail I learnt from them, I wrote them down, and went back home after the league and worked on them. At times I might have even looked disinterested but mentally I was focusing on picking up everything I could,” he said.
He added that he was lucky to have gained the chance to represent Australia in kabaddi.
“I was lucky in the sense that the sport was in its infancy when I first started, so my first tournament was the World Cup. If I’d known then I’d still be playing for Australia now I’d have been surprised and very happy,” he said.
He added that his love for the game also serves as a motivation to be the best player that he can be.
“It gives me confidence on and off the mat. I reflected on my personal game after the 2016 World Cup and had a real desire to improve technically and attitude wise. It’s been a real cultural experience for our team too. It is important for all our team to feel proud of playing for the country if the sport is going to make its mark in Australia,” he said.
In the match against powerhouses India at the 2016 World Cup, it was Nicholas, who picked up Australia’s first international point.
“It was a bit unorthodox and we got smashed in the match, but it was our first point in our first match! Also winning our first match against Argentina was great. We had worked hard in the months leading up and it was a relief to get a victory,” said Nicholas.
He said that players taking up kabaddi must strive to become extremely good at the basics.
“When I first started playing I would think too much about the way I was playing when my skills weren’t up to scratch. When I went to India for the second time I thought they were up to scratch and again found out I had basic areas to improve in,” said Nicholas.
He pointed out that players must be able to discern and filter the information coming from different sources of learning.
“If you are watching 20 different raiders on YouTube don’t try to copy everything all the 20 do, but see what do they all have in common and copy that. If you have five different coaches, they will all tell you some similar things and different things, it’s up to you to decide which things to take in and which things will work for your game,” he said.
Nicholas opined that proper reflection and being level-headed as important aspects in any sport one is learning and that it was no different for kabaddi.
“I met great people in the IIPKL but at times I would wonder why they were so reluctant to change their games. Sure what they had done had worked for them, but to play at another level means you have to be flexible. I reflected after each tournament I’ve played in and made changes after each,” said Nicholas.
He added that Australia’s and his own performance at the 2019 World Cup had its good and bad moments.
“Again during my bad performances I’ve taken a lot out of them. Most notably how I used the same tactics against Malaysia that worked against other teams, and got found out by Malaysia,” said Nicholas.
Australia finished fifth at the 2019 World Cup behind India, Iraq, Taiwan and Malaysia.
“It’s important to be flexible from game to game, but also to be flexible with your own game, because everyone can always improve in some way,” said Nicholas, who admitted he was meticulous when it came to sports.
“I focus on training details to the finest degree. I wrote like five pages of notes after the IIPKL. When I train for anything fitness related it’s the same, I’ll always map it out and put a lot of hours into it. While I still want to improve a lot, I’m happy with my efforts to go from being a non-confident quiet player in 2016, to raiding well in 2019 and having a bit more presence in games,” said Nicholas.
He added that fitness would be one area that would elevate kabaddi to a whole new level.
“If they looked to have the coaches focus on technical and tactical qualities and fitness coaches come in to train players conditioning, speed, strength, flexibility etc., players would be able to reach greater levels,” said Nicholas.
“I have to thank my teammates, particularly in the World Cup 2019 in Malaysia, for having such faith and confidence in me during the tournament, and for sticking tough and training when things have been less than optimal, as they often will be when playing a minority sport as kabaddi is in Australia.”