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Meet Scotland's kabaddi team. Repeat, kabaddi

BLAIR HAWTHORNE glances over at his team-mates.

Scotland's World Cup kabaddi team aka Strathclyde University rugby club. Picture: Colin Mearns
Scotland's World Cup kabaddi team aka Strathclyde University rugby club. Picture: Colin Mearns

"We're going to stick out by a country mile," he says, gesturing at a collection of young men cavorting around a park, holding hands while clad only in shorts. Suddenly, one of them lunges towards another pocket of topless men, flailing his arms and attempting to grope as many of them as he can, all the while making a strange droning noise.

A horrified dog-walker surveys this extraordinary scene and scurries away, perhaps minded to call the police or write to her MSP. She need not have been so alarmed. These peely-wally matadors are, as improbable as it might seem, Scotland's representatives at the Kabaddi World Cup.

Familiar to those who spent their Saturday mornings during the early 90s watching Channel 4, the 4000-year-old discipline is best described as a robust version of tig, or perhaps even British bulldog. Simply put, the members of each team occupy opposite halves of a court then take turns sending forward a "raider" whose aim is to touch as many opposing players as he can – all the while holding his breath and chanting "kabaddi" over and over again – before scampering back. Any defending player touched is out but, should they hold the raider long enough that he takes a breath, he has failed.

To minimise the chances of being caught, the barefoot participants wear the kind of shorts favoured by early-80s footballers. "They're quite skimpy but we're all rugby lads so being naked is second nature to us," suggests Hawthorne. Indeed, the squad is comprised entirely from the Strathclyde University rugby club, the students' union having advertised for players after being invited to recruit a squad by the Scottish Kabaddi Federation, who in turn had been invited to field a development team by the Punjab state government.

Despite the sport's origins, though, the only Asian faces among the 17-strong party that flew out of Glasgow Airport last night are the coaches Kash Taank and Prem Singh. "Even the squad lists for Canada and Italy are full of what appear to be Asian names," says Hawthorne, who will reprise his role as rugby club captain on the kabaddi court. "In all of the clips I've seen, I don't think I've seen a 'white team' play at all. So we'll be the centre of a lot of attention."

And how. A television audience in excess of 700 million are expected to watch tomorrow's opening ceremony, with the bemused Scots slated to play their first match on Tuesday against Canada before further group games against Afghanistan and the hosts, a tie which will be played in front of a capacity 50,000 crowd.

Hawthorne, familiar with the sport through its use as a warm-up exercise in rugby training, is candid enough to admit that he woefully underestimated the scale of what lies ahead, evoking memories of the Jamaican bobsleigh team, who stumbled in to Calgary for the 1988 Winter Olympics ill-equipped for the challenge and later became the subject of the film Cool Runnings.

"Originally, I think we were all just looking at it as a wee trip to India," the 21-year-old economics student admits. "But once we realised what it was all about, it all became a bit more serious and we started watching clips on YouTube and playing kabaddi in our living rooms to work out tactics. We keep having to explain what we're doing and I've actually got to the point now that I'm just telling people I'm going to India for a couple of weeks.

"We're looking at it as a massive adventure and we'll see what happens. We've nothing to be nervous about, really, because we've nothing to lose. We've only played for a few weeks and are supposed to have no chance but we want to show we can do a couple of things and maybe cause an upset."

And why not? Many of the skills needed for the sport are in common with those required for rugby, with Hawthorne hopeful that both the physicality and understanding among the squad are enough to, at least, ensure they are competitive. Certainly, the Scots will not be lacking in enthusiasm, with the Aberdonian even persuading father Iain, the managing director of the country's largest highland wear specialist, McCalls, to kit the party out in traditional attire.

"It's been a whirlwind few weeks but we've had great support," says Hawthorne. "To be honest, we were half expecting our visas not to come through in time but they did and once we got our tickets it all became a bit more real. It's been a blur trying to get everything in place but we've got our jabs and we're ready for the adventure. Excitement is the dominant emotion now."

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