Bengaluru Bulls' time in Pro Kabaddi so far can be segregated in two distinct parts. The first two years saw them go toe-to-toe with the best and finish in the top three, before a dip in performance in the next two campaigns led to lowly seventh and sixth-placed finishes respectively.
Their sudden fall from grace corresponded to a mass exodus of their star players. Ajay Thakur, Manjeet Chhillar, Dharmaraj Cheralathan and Somvir Shekhar, who formed the spine of the team, all left at once at the end of the second season, leaving the Bulls in complete tatters.
The Bulls tried to restore the star power in season four by acquiring season three's most valuable player Rohit Kumar and India's best corner defenders in Surender Nada and Mohit Chillar. The Bulls plugged the holes in their defence, added a top raider, but couldn't replace the talismanic presence of Manjeet. Their fortunes, thus, refused to change.
"Last year I was the only raider, I didn't have any support. I also made a few mistakes but it just didn't happen for us," Rohit Kumar, the current captain of Bengaluru Bulls told Firstpost in an exclusive interview.
The Bulls management, along with coach Randhir Singh, had to find a way to find a restore that presence. There were options in the market, but none of those came cheap. The Bengaluru outfit decided to keep faith in Rohit, who endured a rough phase in his personal life after he was accused of murdering his wife.
None of that bothered the Bulls as they spent Rs 81 lakh to acquire the raider. Rohit is back in the Bulls' fold, and they hope he can lead from the front.
"Rohit had a relatively quiet season four, but if you see his average points per raid (7.5), it was only bettered by Rahul Chaudhari (8). Before that, he was the best player. His performances in all the competitions have been consistently good and we have a lot of faith in him to fire this time around," coach Randhir told Firstpost in an exclusive interview.
After securing the 27-year-old raider, the Bulls had to build a team around him. Coach Randhir went for a lot of youngsters. His reason behind it was simple, he wanted players who could last the long haul.
"The new season is going to be very long and it will demand a lot of the players. In such situation, I feel it is key to have a young side. My aim was to keep the average age around 21-22 years and we have managed to do so. Our team averages 21 and this age group is perfect for this three-month long season," the gaffer reasoned.
The experienced coach, who has coached over 20 teams to the national championships semi-finals in his career, handpicked the youngsters with a bit of prior experience of playing in the league.
"Even an extremely talented player will find it difficult to play to his potential in the first season. The lights, the glamour of the PKL gets to you. We have a lot of talented players who played last season and I expect all of them to show their true potential this time around," Randhir assessed.
Keeping that in mind, the Bulls retained Ashish Sangwan, a young all-rounder from last season. The choice surprised many, but for coach Randhir he was a must-have.
"Ashish is extremely talented. I can tell you that by the end of the season he will be considered one of the top all-rounders in the country," he declared.
Apart from Rohit, the other purchase that stood out was that of Ajay Kumar. Another youngster, Ajay came into the limelight in season four after putting in impressive performances for the Jaipur Pink Panthers, who finished as runners-up. He scored 61 raid points, but his success rate in do-or-die raids was the best in the league. His ability in the crucial third raids will ease the pressure on captain Rohit who can remain on the field for a longer duration.
The captain has been already enjoying Ajay's presence besides him, and has vowed to run riot as a pair."Hum saath me dhoom macha denge (We will rock it together)," said Rohit.
"He is a very good raider, and even though he is my junior, he keeps me motivated all the time. He is always telling me that there is nothing that I can't do. Even in our room, we are continuously discussing strategies," added the captain.
Ravinder Pahal, who was the best defender in season two is also on board. The Sonipat-born corner defender had slightly disappointing campaigns after that, but coach Randhir is confident the old Pahal will return in Bulls colours.
The coach though has special expectations from all-rounder Ashish and raiders Harish Naik and Sumit Singh, who he believes will form vital cogs of a new generation of the Bengaluru Bulls. "If you look at all the big stars in PKL now, it was Bengaluru Bulls who gave them the chance. Pardeep Narwal didn't even play senior nationals when we picked him and look what he has done today," the veteran coach said.
With a bunch of match-winners supported by talented, yet inexperienced players, the Bulls could grow into the season. The high fitness levels of this youthful squad is something that could be crucial for them come October. The Bulls had camped in Chennai for 40 days since 14 June to prepare for the season and coach revealed that his side conducted fitness sessions on the beach to enhance their stamina and build muscle strength.
"After you have trained on the beach, you find it lot easier on the kabaddi mat. Those morning sessions on the beach have greatly helped us. I can see the team is in really good shape," the coach said.
The only setback the Bulls have received in their preparations so far has been the shift of their home matches from Bengaluru to Nagpur. The Bengaluru-outfit have received extraordinary support from the home crowd even during the tough last two seasons, and the shift to Nagpur would be a blow.
"The players are obviously upset that the matches are not being held in Bengaluru. Some of the players who played here last season wanted to give something back to the crowd. But this is something out of our control and we hope we find similar support in Bengaluru," said coach Randhir.
The Bulls find themselves in Zone B, that is the more open of the two zones. Defending champions Patna Pirates aren't as strong as before, leaving the Telugu Titans, newcomers UP Yoddhas and Tamil Thalaivas, and Bengal Warriors as the other competitors. None of these teams look too intimidating on paper and this could be the ideal scenario for the young Bulls. Their players will only gain more experience as the season progresses.
During this period, and even beyond, Bulls' hopes will largely rest on captain Rohit. The Bengaluru outfit will hope he will have the Manjeet-type effect and be their new talisman capable of galvanising a bunch of talented players and turn them into serial winners.
Updated Date: Jul 23, 2017 17:12:25 IST