Volatile Bollywood, league win and incomprehensible English. Adventures of Igor Kiselev in India

13 July 2023
Handballfast has already informed that the debut of Professional Handball League in India recently ended.  
The appearance of relatively new for India and our favorite sport in the world’s most populous country (indeed, there is information that India has passed China in this «tournament table»!) certainly causes interest. Especially, when Russian-speaking players performed not the last roles in this handball Bollywood.
Aleksandr Lesnik, Andrey Nedbaylo, Artem Martynov, Artem Ulanov, Dmitriy Kireev, Emil Minnulin and Yaroslav Shabanov played for different teams. But the left back from Moldova Igor Kiselev, the captain of HC Maharashtra Ironmen, which won the debut title, was the most remarkable player of the championship. 
He scored 11 goals in the final match and became the best player of the decisive meeting. Handballfast couldn’t ignore such an event, therefore, contacted Igor immediately and questioned him about the most interesting.  
But to start, here is a note. 6 teams participated in the first league. At first they held a two-round tournament, after that four best clubs formed semi-finals pairs, then it was a final match. It took 17 days to hold the tournament. The teams played in one sports centre in Jaipur.
 — Obviously, there are a lot of questions. But let’s start with the main one — how did you end up in India?
 — Andrey Ivanovich Ivanov, the coach of HC Dinamo Chelyabinsk during my play for the club in 2019, wrote me at the end of May. He asked if I had a desire to play in India. As far as I understood, he had to go there to train, but something didn’t work out. By the way, Lesnik and Nedbaylo are the wards from Chelyabinsk, Kireev is from Ufa. 
By the moment of this invitation I had already flown out of the playoffs of the championship of Turkey with Koycegiz and I was planning a vacation with my wife. I asked about conditions, consulted with my wife since I had to leave immediately — the championship was held a little bit in a hurry because of a recent death of the main organizer, who had been dealing with the league during five years.
It’s been a week between that call and my arrival to India. The visa was received rather quickly through the Indian Embassy in Moscow (I have a Russian passport). I was curious about the licenses as well, whether Koycegiz would pay for me or apply for lease, but I was assured that there was no need to do anything.
As far as I understood, the Premier League is a separate competition from the Championship of India. The same situation is in all other sports — both in basketball and volleyball, which are developing, as well as in cricket, the country’s main game.  
 — How were the teams formed?
 — I don’t know exactly, but it looked like a draft, since the coaches of my team told that they had headed many players before. Later it became clear, that Dmitriy and I jumped into the last car: guys from Iraq couldn’t come, and we were invited. We were last to arrive and missed about a week of training.  
The coaches are local, but one team was headed by a Portuguese, whose main work is in the third Swedish league. The players were from Iran, Oman, Uzbekistan and Jordan.
And all the arbitrators are foreign pairs from Iran, Oman and girls from Kuweit. 
 — Were you appointed as the captain at once?
 — No, but the story is entertaining. Firstly, I didn’t arrive immediately, secondly, first trainings were held in Pune (the second city of Maharashtra state after Bombay (Mumbai) — Handballfast), and there were no windows in the gym. Consequently, the court is in sand, the balls are dirty and overinflated, nobody used velcro. I didn’t even make throws during the first workout, by the looks the local players gave me I understood, they were disappointed by the legionnaier — whom did you bring (laughing)!
Upon my request, velcro was brought, I started training in full force, in a couple of days our guys were shouting that we would definitely win the league (smiling).
Handball in India is more simple and primitive, of course. For example, in a situation, when a player can’t find continuation quickly, he just throws a ball towards the gate.  
It became clear, that we won’t achieve anything this way. I appealed for help to Dmitriy Fridman, the executive Vice-President of the BRICS International Sports Committee, which supervises Indian leagues. Together with him we had a conversation with coaches, offered to spend more time on tactics. They responded to the dialog, we started to learn the simplest combinations.
It started to work out immediately, and guys were inspired, as well, as the coaches and me. Later I was named the playing coach, and on the last workout before the departure the club’s owner handed me the captain’s armband.
We had to play during 60 minutes, and a short 5-6 minutes break added difficulty. It was hard — as soon as you reach the locker room and drink water, you have to return. And we had to warm up before the matches outside because of the broadcast schedule.    
At the beginning I shouted at guys, when they did something wrong. The coach calmed me down, said, that I shouldn’t have done this. But when the results appeared, he said: "Do whatever you want, our goal is to win (smiling)".  
Guys also made excuses at first, then I asked them: "You did what I had told you, it worked out, you scored the ball, do it constantly". After a while we found the common language...  
 — It seems, that the story with handball league repeats football path — clubs are supported by local business elites. According to the internet, the producer of Bollywood owns Maharashtra.   
 — As we were told, he was a high-ranking military officer, now he owns a serious cricket team and a couple of TV channels. The finances were fine, I suppose, at the level of Qatar, Kuwait and other Middle Eastern leagues.
 — According to the picture on TV, the stands were not full, despite almost 1,5 billion people…
 — The interest increased with every match, there were plenty of people. Probably,  the strand with VIP seats was broadcasted, but fans from other cities came to support their teams. Tickets were free, the focus was on streaming. It was broadcasted on YouTube, even 100 thousand spectators at peak times were mentioned, and matches were broadcasted on two major local channels.
 — Exactly, media component of the tournament has been set up, the broadcast schedule was at high level! And were there any additional activities arranged for the players and supporters?
 — During last month I gave more interview than throughout my entire life — TV, newspapers… But usually I was asked almost the same things — foreigner’s view on India and local handball. As a captain, I participated in the league presentation, the President of the Asian Handball Federation came. The club constantly asked me to post something in social media for promotion. We invited local popular bloggers, some with audience of a million. We recorded videos, they taught us some phrases and native dances.  
 — It seemed that they try to play modern in India, for example, don’t shy away from removing goalkeepers, defend actively. And what is the overall level of the league?
 — On the whole there are good teams and players. And taking into account the fact that they started developing handball a few years ago and even the national team was recently formed, the progress impresses. Though the level is weak, of course. But we have to keep in mind that few players deal with handball since childhood — even 30-year-old players play only 4-5 years.
It happened that there were two leaders in our team — me and Jalal Kiani from Iran. After the first matches the rivals became active against us. But the combinations we had learned often worked.  
For almost everyone handball is not the main activity. Before my departure guys asked me, what I was going to do. I told them that I would return to Turkey and go to the court again. They were really surprised that I play the whole year and it’s my primary job. 
It turned out, that even in cricket the season of their major league lasts a couple of month. After that the players participate in competitions all over the world and in other Indian leagues.   
 — By the way, concerning players. Your team’s goalkeeper Naveen Deshwal became the author of the main point of the season — he flipped after the save.
 — I scolded him. One of our goalkeepers got an injury during the first match of the season, only Naveen and Sasha Lesnik remained, and it would be difficult for Sasha to enter some intense games. I asked him: "Why are doing it while we have important matches ahead?" Especially, he had some problems with his knee... He apologized, explained his act with emotions (smiling). But the audience appreciated the moment.   
 — According to the score, the final wasn’t the most difficult match in the season, was it?
 — The first half was hard, we were leading 4 goals, but then made mistakes and decreased our advantage to one ball. Our rivals had an Iranian as a goalkeeper, whom I played with in one team last season. I knew, that if he had reflected a couple of balls, he would have caught the courage, but we managed to cope with it. By the way, I noticed, that if a team loses 5-6 goals, it stops fighting. 
For the victory we were awarded a Cup, medals, prize money from the League and a bonus from the owner. I also brought home statuettes for the final and semifinals MVP award, as well as five more prizes, given not only for the MVP title, but also for the authorship of the brightest moment of the match. The best players were awarded in three nominations after each match.
 — What conditions for the athletes were created? Regarding recovery,  medical assistance, training process…
 — There was a swimming pool available any time in the hotel, massage, it really helped. Some problems with my hand occurred several times, I literally couldn’t raise it, I appealed for help to the doctor who practiced acupuncture. I don’t know how it worked, but the next morning I was like new!
Everything was fine on the arena, good Taraflex coating, though it was unusual in Puma after Turkey. The coating directly covers the cement, that’s why I headed the massage therapist right after the workout. As soon as we entered the court in Jaipur, the whole team started asking me: "Igor, how do you feel? Is everything fine, does anything hurt?" (smiling).          
The boxes with velcro were delivered, though the old one, in green cans (Trimona — Handballfast). We also managed to set up pumping of the balls with the assistance of the President of the Asian Handball Federation. At first I was arguing with referees, then I explained that it is impossible to play with overpumped balls. Finally, they agreed.
 — By the way, what language did you speak?
 — We spoke English, most of the Indians know it, moreover, so good enough, that some words were unfamiliar to me. But it’s difficult to understand their speech. All mems about Indian English are not a fiction.
I had a connection in Dehli, I came to McDonald's and tried to explain the cashier during 10 minutes, what I needed. I asked her about 15 times to speak slower, and she looked at me as on a fool, like what wasn't clear, I’m speaking in English (laughing).
Remarkably, they often communicate in English with themselves, since the difference in Hindi dialects across the states is rather high. There are a lot of dialects, sometimes it has intersections with Persian language. And they understand their English quite well (smiling).
Perhaps, as it happens everywhere, native people also tried to teach me something. They asked me to say some words and then laughed. I remembered only greeting — namaste. And gratitude is something very consonant with sabbath.
 — What is next? Will there be a second season?
 — Yes, according to the reviews, everyone liked it very much. For example, supporters still write to me, sometimes they call me, ask to talk. Though I am not an active user of social networks, the number of my followers increased (smiling). They even found my wife’s account and send her pictures with me. 
As we’ve been told, two teams are expected to be added. The coaches also told us: "You are ours, take your wives, children and come next year".
I suppose, everything went very well for the first time, I liked it! And if they continue inviting the legionnaires, the league will become stronger, that will have a positive impact on popularity.  
​​​​​​​ — I think we shall finish with Indian handball. Let’s turn to everyday life. When your nearest knew that you are going to India, did anyone remind of "Shantaram" (a world bestseller by Australian Gregory David Roberts, based on memories of adventures in India — Handballfast)?     
 — Oh, I’ve had it for a long time unread (smiling). Indeed, someone close said about it, but most people told me not to come back without a picture with Mithun Chakraborti (an Indian actor — Handballfast) (laughing).
 — What did you google first after you received an offer to go to India?
 — I wondered what to see in Jaipur and information about the life in the city in general. I was immediately told that we will play there, while the training camp is in Pune. By the way, we lived in both cities in hotels of the same brand with only difference in star rating.
 — With such an owner of the club, surely, it is impossible to pass by the industry of Bollywood. Have you been to Indian cinema?
​​​​​​​ — No, I had little spare time. For instance, we came out for a workout at half-past five in the morning, since it is unbearably hot in the daytime. But there was a story with one actor. A famous local actor came to a semi-final match, everyone took pictures with him, and he was wearing a Rajasthan t-shirt, Dima Kireev played for this club.
After our victory this actor came to our hotel, congratulated us and put on our t-shirt on the final match. Then he entered our locker room, appreciated my good performance, I thanked him and asked: "You weren’t supporting us initially, were you?" At first, he was surprised, that I had recognized him, but was, probably, a bit offended by the question (smiling).
 — What was the most amazing thing you faced in India?
 —  Stuffiness and humidity. We hardly walked on foot in the city, if we needed to go shopping, we called our manager, he invited a driver and often accompanied us. We didn’t live in the centre, and we had to go far to reach popular locations, and the heat was insufferable — about 40 degrees. As soon as you go outside, it makes you sweat. During the first game day it was also stuffy in the gym, but then the ventilation was turned on.  
Love of Indians to cricket also surprised me. It is almost like religion, while players are like demigods. It is constantly broadcasted on TV, and children or adults can arrange a court for it on any waste ground. Almost like our people play soccer on the street.    
And, as if I was a child, I was also continuously surprised by cows on the streets. And I should mention that people are very friendly, smiling, they always asked if everything was all right.            
 — How did you find local cuisine? Or were you given European meals at the hotel?
 — No, I also expected, that we would be provided with common food, but with the exception of pasta, sandwiches and omelette everything was local.
Frankly speaking, I liked only mango ice-cream. This fruit in India is like our potato — popular and not expensive.
During one of our walks I saw a milk cocktail with mango at street market. I asked our manager to buy it, and he replied that it would be better if we hadn’t bought it, because mango is cheap and, consequently, bad. I was very surprised and said that any mango is a delicacy for us.  
And deserts are very tasty in India. And fish is delicious as well, especially in grapefruit sauce, but all the rest… Sometimes I was told that a certain dish wasn’t too hot. Well, it turned out to be not too hot for them, while my mouth was on fire (laughing).  
But I managed to reach an agreement with the kitchen. I ordered chicken sausages with omelette on breakfast and chicken with something on dinner. A few days later all the personnel knew that I need pasta with fried chicken at 4 p.m before the workout (smiling).  
 — Would you like to return to India as a tourist?
 — As I’ve said, the coaches told us before departure that they count on us in the next season, asked not to answer on calls from other teams (laughing). I answered that I would come only with my wife and asked to arrange a trip to Goa, they agreed, now the victory in the championship is left (smiling).
Though they promised to show India this time too. But it didn’t happen due to a little competitive confusion. 
I would like to thank Andrey Ivanov once again for offering me to go and also Dmitriy Fridman for the continued assistance. I am very grateful to them!
 — Where are going to start the next full European season?
 — I don’t know yet. Turkish teams invited me, but we are looking forward to hearing from several clubs, then we’ll chose with my wife the best option. I suppose, this issue will be resolved within a week. And the readers of Handballfast will be the first to know it!  
​​​​​​​Photo: personal archive of Igor Kiselev
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