BEFORE YOU TAKE IN his swift lunges on the match, his quick turns, kicks and jumps as he dances through the maze of opponent defenders on the kabaddi mat, the first thing you notice about U Mumba raider Rishank Devadiga is his jersey number.
In Pro Kabaddi where most players wear single or double digit jersey numbers, Rishank's shirt features an eye-catching inscription of 777. Speaking exclusively to TFG, the 22 year old had a shy smile on his face when he told the story of his jersey number,
"Actually, I'm a big fan of Cristiano Ronaldo. He wears the number 7 jersey, so I opted for the same jersey number in the first season of Pro Kabaddi. Later, Rakesh Kumar joined U Mumba and he wore the number 7 jersey as well. He is my senior so I had to give him the number 7. Now, I wanted to stick to my lucky number 7 but didn't want to take 77. So I went one step further and took on 777."
In the game of kabaddi, too, going one step further can make a world of difference, acknowledges Rishank. This season, coming in with a new squad, U Mumba seemed to be struggling at first. But the team kept at it, and now halfway into the league, they seem to be recovering, and are currently in the top four. Rishank talked about the hurdles they had to cross as a team, and the light at the end of the tunnel,
"There were some initial issues because it was a new squad. The pre-season camp we had was also relatively shorter in duration. And two of the matches we lost were close contests. So by now you can already see us recovering momentum. The team is gelling well and we're playing better every game. There's no doubt we'll be there in the semi-finals."
As for Rishank himself, he is enjoying his time as ever. He's been instrumental in U Mumba's comeback after the rocky start and is one of the most capped players in the team at 52 games; with 284 total points under his belt at the time this article was written. And to add to that, he gets to share the dressing room with two of his idols,
"Since the time I started playing kabaddi, Anup Kumar and Rakesh Kumar have been my idols. In the first season when I joined U Mumba, I knew Anup Kumar would be my captain, and I couldn't be any happier. A junior player like me was getting to play next to a legend... I was now teammates with my idol. It was a sublime experience, and it still gives me great joy to play with them. I enjoy every single moment on the mat with them. They guide me a lot, both during practice sessions and during matches. Our head coach Bhaskaran Edachery also keeps advising me at all times on how to improve my game."
Talking about the last 2 years' experience of playing in the Pro Kabaddi League, Rishank foremost remembered the fans. The fans in Mumbai, to be more specific. He talked about the team's unbeaten home record and credited it to the support they received from their fanbase,
"The fans have kept us going. They gave us tremendous support in the last 3 seasons, and we feed on the energy that they impart on us. That's why we have never lost a single game in our home venue. We're counting on them to come out in numbers again and support us during the home leg that's coming up. We'll try to win all 4 of those games and secure a place in the semis."
But coming back to the competition, Rishank readily admitted that the road was anything but easy. He pointed out examples like Patna Pirates losing to Dabang Delhi, saying that every single game in the league was going to be tough, and the team needed to remain on their toes every single game night in order to keep up their record of reaching the grand finale of every PKL season,
"All the teams are good this season. You can't look at any one team any differently from the others. Everyone is playing well and even the ones who are at the top of the game are being beaten on a given night by another team who manages to put in that much extra effort in that game. So there's no telling. It's going to be tight till the end."