Alex Robertson chances upon a spontaneous game of kabaddi on a sun-kissed stretch of sand.

Hikkaduwa Beach, about an hour north of Galle on the southwest coast of Sri Lanka, is one of those sun-kissed stretches of sand lapped by an impossibly turquoise ocean. It's well known for snorkelling — the coral starts just a few metres from the shoreline. Small islands pepper the near horizon, easily reached by one of the many small boats that bob around on the breakers, with promise of underwater treasures for the more adventurous scuba divers.

I went for an amble on the soft sand under a glaring mid-afternoon sun. A dozen or so young men were talking excitedly as one of their crew traced a rectangle in the sand with his foot. He bisected the form with a deep groove to leave two squares of equal size, and the men split into two, standing in either of the two squares.

Some more animated discussions ensued and bodies were traded, a man in either square pushing them to and fro: they were selecting teams for a game of kabaddi.

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The game was spread around the sub-continent by Tamil sea traders centuries ago.

Today, it is played across Southeast Asia and India with televised leagues and international competition. This, however, was the Sri Lankan version of a pick-up game of soccer in the local park.

Two teams of seven-a-side line up in their respective squares as they take turns to send one of their members, a raider, into the opposing half to tag as many of the opposition as possible before returning to the safety of home. Points are scored for how many of the opposing team are tagged by the raider. Meanwhile, the defending team tries to capture the raider and will trip, grab and pile on top of him. He is safe if he only touches home across the line.

The mercury was pushing 30C as the first raider bounced around in enemy territory.

Somebody chanted "kabaddi, kabaddi, kabaddi".

The raider lunged for a defender, but missed and sand kicked up as he checked himself, retreating, the defenders moving in unison, mirroring his moves as if performing a synchronised dance.

The raider made another parry, this time his outstretched fingers just grabbing an arm.

He spun and lunged back across the line as the defenders threw themselves in his direction. Another plume of sand and he was safe, lying across the divide as his teammates cheered and jeered at the opposition. One-nil.

Next up, a tall, well-built fellow strode confidently towards the line, his chin tilted up as he surveyed his rivals with disdain. He bounced across the line and wasted no time in making his moves, lunging and reaching, then pulling back before repeating. His confidence got the better of him as he slipped and all seven defenders jumped on him, pinning him to the ground, yelping in delight. Two-nil.

And so they went on for a few more rounds bouncing, testing, reaching out, leaping and floundering in the sand.

All the while, the sun beat down. I was sweating just watching and snapping away with my phone. Eventually the sun won out and they all jumped into the ocean to cool down.

The yelling and laughing followed me along the beach, growing fainter as the sound of the impossibly turquoise waves lapping the sun-kissed sand gradually took over.

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Getting there
Emirates flies from Auckland to Colombo, via Dubai, with return Economy Class fares from $1609.

Galle is a two-hour drive from Colombo.