Sandeep Nangal Ambian shot dead: Memories of an iconic kabaddi player

Sandeep Singh Sandhu, also known as Sandeep Nangal Ambian, an international kabaddi player was shot dead by four unidentified assailants at a tournament at Jalandhar, Punjab on Monday, according to multiple media reports. He was 40.

The incident took place between 6.15 to 6.30 PM and the Mallian Khurd village, according to the Indian Express. Sandeep, who had settled in England with his family, was in his hometown for a kabaddi tournament. He is survived by his wife and two sons.

Sandeep was a popular on the global kabaddi circuit, competing in leagues in the United Kingdom, United States, New Zealand, Australia, besides the Indian national team.

Here, Debayan Sen pens down his memories of Sandeep from the inaugural World Kabaddi League .

It’s the final of the inaugural World Kabaddi League, in front of a packed Mohali hockey stadium in Punjab on a chilly November evening in 2014. Favourites Khalsa Warriors have, as always, gotten off to a quick start and put the pressure on United Singhs in a clash that pitted the league toppers against second-placed side in the eight-team competition.

The Warriors led 6-0 and also held a slender advantage going into the third quarter. But with the scores at 52-51, with a little over three minutes to go for the final to get over, raider Jasmanpreet Singh ‘Raju’ gets challenged to what circle kabaddi lexicon calls a kainchi (scissor), where the raider uses his legs to impede his opponent, while using upper body strength to ensure he doesn’t get away from him before the 30-second time limit. The stopper is Sandeep Singh Sandhu, better known in kabaddi circles as Sandeep Nangal Ambian, the Singhs captain.

The WKL marketed him in that first year as the ‘Gladiator’, and there wasn’t a better nickname suited to a sportsperson from what I can personally remember. Sandeep inspired a pretty unspectacular but steady team into a champion side, leading from the back in a way. In circle kabaddi all raids have to be scored, and while raiders have to alternate, there is no compulsion on stoppers who feature in a four-member defence. Sandeep could play the corners and the centre, and inspired stoppers around him to be great too. But what was noticeable that year was that he wanted to have a crack at the opponent himself more often than not.

When looking up pictures of his for this tribute, I skimmed through some from that WKL. The range of positions he found himself in was spectacular. He was incredibly strong, with arms the proportions of medium-sized tree trunks. But he was very flexible too and his speed across the mat was explosive. That was an asset in the final, where dew set in fairly early and made the second half quite slippery. He kept his balance effortlessly, played on the minds of the Warriors attack line, and inspired his team to a 58-55 win as only he could.

During those broadcasts, I had maintained written notes and stats for the entire season, which must be lying in my house in Delhi somewhere. But from memory, he was both statistically and impact-wise the best player of a long, punishing season. He was perhaps the only player I recall who never got substituted, playing virtually every game. In some of the pictures I looked up, he sports a bleeding nose and then a little plaster to stem the flow, to allow him to keep competing, no doubt. In some he’s engaged in a wrestling hold with an opponent, while in some he’s getting his jersey yanked off his frame, or suspended in mid-air in trying to catch up with a pacy raider.

Off the mat, my broadcast colleagues and cricketers Anjum Chopra and Ajay Mehra joined me in mixing liberally with players across all teams. We made some great friends among the players of the Lahore Lions, even hanging out in their rooms when we stayed in common hotels. Sandeep was a man of few words, though. He would smile often, and when you met him you realised he was actually strong without being bulky or massive in frame. How then he got himself into those gladiatorial positions, using arms, midriff or legs to trap and suffocate raiders, was a testament to his fitness.

He was hugely popular on the global kabaddi circuit, a frequent player in leagues in UK, US, New Zealand, Australia, besides also a regular on the Indian national team, which frequently met the majority of the Lahore Lions players in India-Pakistan clashes at the World Cup.

Above everything, Sandeep provided a pure delight in a sport that was meant to be as much about courage and determination, as strength, fitness, and endurance. As he told Anjum at the end of the presentation after the final, his message to his team even when they trailed was simply that they would fight till the very end, and not give up. That was the essence of his game, and what made the first season of that league so much fun to be around.

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