The Pro Kabaddi League made its way into the fifth season accepting a lot of new challenges and posing a truckload of tricky questions.
The 12-week-long tournament culminates with a final between Gujarat Fortunegiants, a team that made its debut in this edition, and Patna Pirates, defending champions and one of the most celebrated franchises of the league.
Over the past few days, both teams have been at loggerheads with the Fortunegiants coach Manpreet Singh insinuating in the post-qualifier press conference that it would be easy for the debutants to win the title if they meet the Pirates in the final.
Call it prophecy or just a stroke of luck that after going through three different opponents in the play-off stages to win a shot at the title, it is the team from Patna that will stand in between the Fortunegiants and the trophy.
Responding to the jibe from Manpreet, the Pirates' coach Ram Mehar Singh, in the press conference after the match with Puneri Paltan on 24 October, lashed out at the former Pirates captain and felt it was unbecoming of a coach to say such statements.
On further prodding, Ram Singh added that if it was God's will, he would give his proper opinion during the pre-final press conference sitting next to Manpreet depending on the result of their 26 October match against Bengal Warriors.
Both Manpreet and Ram Singh shared the stage to answer questions from reporters ahead of the Pro Kabaddi League season 5 final accompanied by their captains Fazel Atrachali and Pardeep Narwal, where both coaches preferred to keep a calm demeanour.
The Pirates coach expressed his satisfaction at the team's confidence levels.
Manpreet, on the other hand, pulled a leaf out of Indian cricket coach Ravi Shastri's book of jargon and said, "The final should be an unbelievable match that should be enjoyed by all who love the sport. Irrespective of who wins the title on Saturday, kabaddi should be the real winner."
A clash of the league's top raiders against arguably the most all-round team this season will be looked at for a variety of off-court factors too.
Manpreet, who as a player lead the Patna Pirates to their first title triumph in season 3, is now the coach of Gujarat, who are well within the sights of winning the trophy in their debut season.
"Patna gave me my first exposure to this Pro Kabaddi League. I consider myself very lucky that I could win the title as a captain and I want to win as a coach now."
These two teams have played twice against each other in the league stages with the Pirates losing both closely-fought encounters.
High-scoring Pardeep, captain of the Pirates, could only manage a combined score of 10 points in the games — An uncharacteristic blot on his otherwise stellar record this season.
The course of the final heavily depends on how Pardeep scores and the Pirates coach exuded confidence that even though the Iranians (Fazel and Abozar Mighani) are talented defenders, the Pirates' captain has improved a lot as a player in the last few games.
"Pardeep is head and shoulders above the rest of the raiders and the Pirates have two players in the top five raiders in this league. In the last three matches, Pardeep was amazing and even 50 percent of that will be enough to win the final depending on the rest of the team's performance on Saturday," Ram Singh said.
Not bogged down by such high expectations from the team management, Pardeep said he was bound to give more than his 50 percent and he never takes undue pressure. This was a statement corroborated by Manpreet who chipped in to say, "This is the thing about Pardeep. He never takes any kind of pressure."
The Fortunegiants coach added, "We have played two matches against the Pirates and both were tough. If we stop Pardeep at 25 percent, then we can win the title."
While talking about his controversial statement in Mumbai, Manpreet said that it stemmed out of his belief on the preparation and confidence of his entire team.
Though the Pirates have reached the final of the tournament, a constant worry throughout the season has been the performance of their defence and it is clearly one of their biggest weaknesses. Even Manpreet stated that the Pirates' attack was better than their defence.
However, the Pirates' coach gave a refreshing new spin to this by referring to Pardeep as a reason for the defence being seen in a poor light. He said he believed the brilliance and scoring rate of Pardeep is so high that it might seem the defence is very weak in comparison.
"Our defence has been very good, especially in the play-off stages. If one department is exceptionally strong, the other departments are bound to look weak and that is what has happened to our defence. Everyone knows Pardeep is our key player and it is time we show that Patna Pirates is a balanced side."
Talking about his side, Manpreet said he was proud of his team that has surpassed all expectations and has astonished the pundits with their performance. He believes that the actual strength of the franchise has been the team as a whole and not just the defence or offence.
"The entire squad of 19 boys are strong and there is no one player in the team who isn't fit to play in the final."
On the other hand, it is clear that the Pirates' fortunes have heavily relied on the performances of its main raiders Pardeep and Monu Goyat and the non-performance of these two players can upset the team's best-laid plans.
However, Pardeep has hit a purple patch and the Pirates' coach believes the raider has been growing from strength to strength and is not showing any sign of slowing down.
Another interesting facet to this final is the fact that it was Manpreet who, during his time as coach of Patna, recognised the talents of a younger Pardeep and roped in his services.
"When I was captain of the Pirates in season 3, I requested the owners to get Pardeep and Rakesh Narwal. The name and place he has earned since then is of his own accord and I salute a player of his calibre. His entire journey flashes before my eyes and I have seen his strengths and weaknesses from close quarters," said Manpreet.
In a press conference that revolved mostly around Pardeep, the newest poster-boy of Pro Kabaddi League, the Fortunegiants hoped they can replicate their successful strategy from the league games where they clipped his wings.
With the Fortunegiants' defence consisting of the young Indians, Parvesh Bhainswal and Sunil Kumar, along with the Iranians in the corners, it will be interesting to see how many points Pardeep scores against a well-rounded defensive unit.
"Parvesh and Sunil who were warming the benches in earlier editions have been the lynchpins of the Gujarat defence. If they exhibit even 25 percent of their talent, it is enough to contain Pardeep and Monu and we can win the match," said Manpreet.
Both the coaches signed off the press conference on an intriguing note.
While Manpreet refused to address the availability of Fortunegiants' Sukesh Hegde for the final, Ram Mehar hinted at a third raider who might be a secret weapon for the Pirates.
Whatever might be their trump card on Saturday, it is clear that both teams' focal point is the Pirates' captain Pardeep who can blow away even the best of opponents on his day.
Right from opposing captains and the coaches to his fellow players and teammates, everyone has been in awe of Pardeep's performance in this season and ahead of the final on 28 October at the Jawaharlal Nehru Indoor Stadium in Chennai, the Fortunegiants coach expressed something every opponent has wanted to believe but have failed in quite a few occasions.
"He is best at what he does, but he is human after all," said Manpreet talking about his 'find' who has taken not just the Pro Kabaddi League, but the entire sport by storm.
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Updated Date: Oct 28, 2017 14:16:00 IST