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Pro Kabaddi League 2017: Gujarat Fortunegiants mix exuberance with experience to upset pecking order

"For me the most important thing is the skill, and our players have that in abundance. And for the skillful, there is no fear. I believe my team has the ability to turn over any big team in the league. If they even play 50 percent of what I have seen during the camp, they will be very tough to beat." a confident Manpreet Singh, the coach of the Gujarat Fortunegiants had asserted before the fifth season of Pro Kabaddi League began.

Two and a half weeks into the campaign, the Fortunegiants have remained true to Manpreet's words. They have displayed great skill, upset some of the biggest teams in the league and have played fearless kabaddi. With four wins from six matches, the Gujarat side head into the inter-zone challenge week as the strongest force from Zone A, something that few — including their own captain — expected at the start of the campaign.

"I never thought we would be able to do so well. We had five-six new players, and I was worried how they would cope with the pressure that comes with playing in the Pro Kabaddi League. But all of us, including the younger players have given their hundred percent. Our defence has done a great job so far and our combination is set now," Sukesh Hegde, Gujarat's captain told Firstpost. 

While the results have raised eyebrows, the efficiency with which the Gujarat side has operated has been astonishing. Teams have scraped and scratched for a cohesion among their players, but the Fortunegiants have had no such issues. They've looked like a team that's been playing together for months and the results have reflected that.

"The strongest point of my team is that we are like a family, a very closely-knit unit. Even on the mat we aren't dependent on one player to deliver the goods. All our players contribute and make us tick," coach Manpreet told Firstpost over the phone.

Gujarat Fortunegiants have surprised many with their start to Pro Kabaddi Season 5. PKL

Gujarat Fortunegiants have surprised many with their start to Pro Kabaddi Season 5. PKL

In their opening game against Dabang Delhi, every Fortunegiants player got on the scoresheet. It was a team effort and that has been the case for most matches that followed. The understanding between the members of the team helped them gel well and form a solid defensive unit. The Fortunegiants have allowed just 145 points against them in six matches at an impressive average of 24.16. It's the second best tally in the league behind only Puneri Paltan (24) who have played three fewer matches with plenty of time between each of their games, a luxury that the Fortunegiants didn't have.

Four out of Gujarat's seven starters made their Pro Kabaddi debuts this season, but their lack of experience hasn't affected the team's performance. In fact, the Hegde-led side have benefited from their exuberance that has lifted them out of tricky situations on more than one occasions. Sachin Tawar has been the pick of the younger lot scoring 33 raid points in the six matches so far. He has been the team's go-to man in the do-or-die raids where he has enjoyed huge success. As things stands, Sachin has the most do-or-die raid points (18) in the entire league and his average of three do-or-die raid points per game is also unmatched. Rohit Gulia, another one of the team's youngsters,  has proved to be the perfect foil for Sachin, notching 13 raid points himself.

Sachin's heroics have eased the pressure on captain Hegde who has been able to focus on captaincy and thus get the best out of the team's young brigade. "Sachin balances the team. I was aware of his abilities and knew how much he can help the team. So I allowed him to play with free mind, and urged him to play his natural game. That works well for us and allows me to captain the team. My job is to get the best out of the team and our youngsters have let me focus on that job," Hegde assessed.

Even though the Fortunegiants average just 13 raid points per game, a tally that's only tenth best in the league, it has proved to be enough thanks to their strong defence.

All four of Fortunegiants' defenders feature among the top ten scoring defenders in the league so far. While the corner duo of Fazel Atrachali and Abozar Mohajer Mighani have reproduced their partnership that worked wonders for Iran in the World Cup, debutants Sunil Kumar and Parvesh Bhainswal have emerged as a strong pairing in cover positions. Both players have scored 11 points each and have provided the crucial support to Atrachali and Mighani, who have racked up 31 tackle points among themselves.

"Even though our youngsters are new to Pro Kabaddi, they aren't new to the sport. They have been playing AKFI tournaments and Sachin has even captained the Indian junior kabaddi team. So he has enough experience. The only adjustment these players have had to make is adapting to the new format of Pro Kabaddi. The league is watched by millions all across India, the stadiums are packed, you have to face media and conduct yourself with a lot of discipline. But all our players have not just adapted quickly but also met our expectations in terms of the performance," coach Manpreet suggested.

Gujarat Fortunegiants' Sachin has impressed in the Pro Kabaddi League so far. PKL

Gujarat Fortunegiants' Sachin has impressed in the Pro Kabaddi League so far. PKL

While the right mix of exuberance and experience has worked well for Gujarat, the meticulous preparations using coach Manpreet's expertise has prepared them for all types of challenges. "I'm a player, so the way I think and prepare the team is different from the other coaches. I put a lot of emphasis on reading the opponent. We have a long meeting before every game, where we make plans for every opponent player, discuss and predict the different plans they would have to stop us, and accordingly devise a strategy that the opponents won't understand quickly. We have been doing this quite successfully and hopefully would be able to continue it," the coach added.

The win on debut was followed by a tie and a loss against fellow newcomers Haryana Steelers, but the Fortunegiants responded with three straight wins on home patch. U Mumba and Jaipur Pink Panthers were among their victims, and those wins against the big boys have highlighted their credentials. They will now head into the inter-zone challenge week brimming with confidence.

"When a bowler takes Sachin Tendulkar's wicket, he can't sleep for a few nights. In kabaddi, the likes of Anup Kumar and Manjeet Chhillar hold similar stature. So as a player, if you are able to tackle them, or take points away from them and also actually beat them, your morale gets an instant boost. My team is experiencing something similar right now, and their confidence is sky high. I hope we use it to our benefit in future games," coach Manpreet said.

The Fortunegiants will begin the inter-zone challenge week against Bengaluru Bulls on Tuesday, looking to cause a few more upsets. Teams from Zone B have some of the strongest raiding departments in the competition, and Fortunegiants' defence will be put to test. But having done away with fear, the Fortunegiants will be keen to continue the giant-killing act.

"We are now more confident than before. Winning these four matches has strengthened our self belief. The team is playing very well, and if we play with the same level of performance, we will surely win the remaining three matches in our home leg," Hegde who was once unsure of his team's credentials signed off by vowing to continue the Gujarat bravado.

Updated Date: Aug 15, 2017 16:40 PM

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