From no team to formidable force: the Kiwi women who took kabaddi by storm


It was a night straight out of a fairytale, set in India.

Dressed in a handmade sari, ex-Kiwi Fern Kath Keremete entered a beautifully landscaped property. The night ahead of her held an elaborate five-star meal, a live band, and a night of being waited on hand and foot – all courtesy of the Punjab government.

It was 2013 and Keremete was in the northern Indian state as part of New Zealand’s first women’s kabaddi team to compete in the Kabaddi World Cup. It’s a major event for the state, hence pulling out all the stops for the fairy tale evening, with kabaddi teams across the world as guests of honour.

Kabaddi is a traditional sport played across India, particularly in the northern Punjab state. Keremete compares it to the Kiwi backyard game of bullrush.

Kathleen Wharton-Keremete playing for the Warriors at the NRL Nines in Perth this year.

Will Russell/Getty Images

Kathleen Wharton-Keremete playing for the Warriors at the NRL Nines in Perth this year.

“It’s like one on one bullrush but in a team, and it’s quite strategic and technical.”

One of the most popular sports in India, kabaddi is a mix between bullrush and wrestling, where two teams of seven face-off and score points by tackling and holding their competitors down.

There’s also an indoor version that’s played, which Keremete described as similar to outdoor, but “it’s not one-on-one, it’s all-on-one”.

In New Zealand, the game has been rising in popularity and has attracted a lot of women from sports like rugby or mixed martial arts.

In fact, that’s how the team manager and organiser Tara Singh-Bain first started searching for talent to form a kabaddi team ahead of the world cup.

New Zealand's defensive chain against Pakistan at the Kabaddi World Cup 2013.

Kabaddi NZ/Supplied

New Zealand’s defensive chain against Pakistan at the Kabaddi World Cup 2013.

The idea to form a team came while he was watching an announcement from India on the Kabaddi World Cup. A friend wondered out loud why New Zealand didn’t have a team, which got Singh-Bain thinking.

He connected with people at local marae, asking if they knew any women that would be interested in playing. An open day was set up, which drew in women with strong sports backgrounds.

Keremete said in the 2013 cup, many players were seasoned New Zealand sportswomen from teams like the Black Ferns or Kiwi Ferns.

Back in 2013, they were the underdogs of the kabaddi world. Most women hadn’t even heard of the sport before being asked to give it a go, and they had spent the last three months watching YouTube videos, training, and searching the rules.

“We practiced together, flew to India, had our first game, and our first up game was India and they smashed us,” Keremete said.

Elizabeth Motu and Sarina Fiso with the New Zealand team's cheque for finishing runner-up at the Kabaddi World Cup in India in 2014.

Kabaddi NZ/Supplied

Elizabeth Motu and Sarina Fiso with the New Zealand team’s cheque for finishing runner-up at the Kabaddi World Cup in India in 2014.

It was a steep learning curve, but after that loss, Keremete said the team went from strength to strength, playing other countries, in front of crowds tens of thousands strong, until they found themselves up against India once more in the finals.

While they lost that game, they took home second prize – 51 lakh rupees, or around NZ$100,000 – and Keremete was pleased they could give India a good game in their rematch, losing by only a few points.

To come second in their first world cup was a huge achievement and Singh-Bain recalled the feeling of pride standing in front of a crowd tens of thousands strong.

“I feel proud of myself to do something for my New Zealand community and I took the New Zealand community to my homeland.”

He sees big things in the future for kabaddi and hopes one day to take a team to compete in the Asian Games.

Singh-Bain is now the president of the New Zealand Kabaddi Council and is working with his Australian counterparts to get Australia and New Zealand teams into the Asian Games.

Japan takes on Iran during the kabaddi women’s group match at the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea.

Stanley Chou/Getty Images

Japan takes on Iran during the kabaddi women’s group match at the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea.

For many on the team, the 2013 competition was their first time travelling to India. Since then, they’ve returned for two more world cups: 2014, when they came second again, and 2016 where they earned third place. They’ve also competed in two international indoor competitions in Malaysia in 2018 and 2019.

When the women first went over in 2013, the team was predominantly Māori and found cultural connections to the sport.

“For us as Māori especially, we had quite a deep connection to the sport,” Keremete said.

“It’s a sport that requires no equipment, it requires no gear, it can be played anywhere, and anyone can participate. It’s quite a village sport.”

The team loved that concept as well as the spiritual side of the game, she said, and they made sure to be respectful.

They were also able to learn more about the protocols in the game. The New Zealand team had been practicing many of these but lacked a deeper understanding of why they were doing it.

“The field is very sacred. We make sure to acknowledge that by touching the markings, then ourselves and bringing our hands together like in prayer, to acknowledge for them, that’s their religion,” Keremete said.

“We learned a lot about their tikanga and why the game is so special.”

For now, the Covid-19 pandemic has put a hold on further competitions, but the team was looking forward to returning to India to experience more of the culture and finally claim that world title.

* This article was supplied by the Asia New Zealand Foundation and is republished with permission

– Asia Media Centre