Patna Pirates first made the headlines when they bought the most expensive player Rakesh Kumar in the first ever Pro Kabaddi auction ahead of the opening season. It was a first major victory for the Pirates, who managed to get their hands on one of the finest players in Indian kabaddi. However, it was to be just the start of many more and bigger victories to come.
The men in green needed the heartache of back-to-back semi-final exits to finally claim the silverware, but when they did so in the third season, they acquired a feeling of invincibility. Despite a changed team in the fourth season, Patna Pirates were able to retain their swagger and bulldoze their way to another crown.
While there were several key figure who contributed to the Pirates' twin triumphs, none was bigger than Pardeep Narwal. Having sprung onto the scene from nowhere in the third season, the young raider simply went from strength to strength. With 125 raid points, he was adjudged as the Emerging Player in third season, before a campaign where he notched up 131 raid points that led him to another winners' medal and the Most Valuable Player prize.
He was the obvious choice for Pirates to retain. But the auctions weren't as fruitful as the defending champions would have loved to have. The Pirates have just seven players with prior PKL experience. Out of those seven, two have played just nine matches combined. The marquee names include former U Mumba defender Vishal Mane, cover defender Sachin Shingade and promising raider Monu Goyat.
There is a clear dearth of experience in that squad and in such a long campaign, it could prove to be detrimental to their chances of claiming a hat-trick of titles. However, cover defender Mane believes the players who are unknown to the world now have plenty of ability apart from the necessary experience of playing in national championships.
"We have the most number of young players in the league, but their performances in domestic competitions have been excellent. It's not just one or two players, but the entire bunch of youngsters that we have are very capable," Mane told Firstpost in an exclusive interview.
"In my opinion all the teams have 7-8 good players, but beyond that there isn't much strength. Because of the quality of our young players, we have the best bench strength in the competition," he added.
Pardeep has been appointed captain of the team, but Mane feels every member of the team must make their own plans on the mat to help the skipper out.
"I have played under many good captains, most notably Anup Kumar. He always urged us to think and contribute to the team in that way. It's important that everyone gives his inputs and not put the pressure on single person's head. So even if that person goes out, the team doesn't suffer," explained the Maharashtra-born defender.
Even though Pardeep will be leading the side, Mane expects to take charge of the team's defensive responsibilities.
Pardeep will have more burden on his shoulders with lack of senior raiders to support him, but he feels he is no ready to take the responsibility of the main raider's role. "When I first joined Pro Kabaddi, I used to be a bit nervous. Now I don't feel any fear. I play without any burden and that suits me," Pardeep told Firstpost over the phone.
The corner positions will be a big worry for Patna Pirates with no experienced player in their ranks who could play in that position. Services defender Jaideep will be entrusted with the role in one of the corners, while Virender Singh will take up the role at the opposite corner.
"Jaideep is a very good player. In the national championships, he delivered a big performance in the final. So it shows that he is ready for the bid stage. The other players have also played with the big stars at the nationals, so they are not new to the highest levels," Mane added.
Despite their perceived ability, a lack of experience will catch up with the defending champions at some point in the campaign. In addition, the weight of expectations will play a part too. But Mane feels otherwise.
"We have won the league on the last two occasions, no one else has done. So the pressure will be on others to wrestle this title away from us. We just have to do what we have been doing. As a defender, I never take pressure. My job is to apply the pressure on the raider. I'm positive that we can complete the hat-trick," added the cover defender.
The Pirates have been in a training camp since mid-June in Greater Noida, under the watchful eye of Ram Mehar Singh. The coach was a former mentor for Patna Pirates and is a Asian Games Gold medalist for India. He will have to get the best out of these young players without allowing them to get carried away.
A daily session only focusing on fitness, and another session of game practice has ensured that the Pirates aren't left behind in terms of preparations.
As their chances of a third straight title appear bleak, unless Pardeep Narwal elevates himself to another level altogether, the Pirates would be hoping they conjure up yet another young star to carry them to the play-offs. Having never failed to qualify from the group stage, the Pirates would be banking on their ability to make a champion out of nothing.
Be it young Pardeep in the third season, or Sandeep Narwal in the second, the Pirates managed to find young prodigies and made them into top-notch performers. With a plethora of young players at their disposal, the defending champions would hope the trend continues.
But more importantly, the Pirates will want to keep the other trend going, that is of winning titles. Mane is confident, as he puts his faith in the team's hard work.
"We have never worked harder for something. Our preparations have been perfect, and if you have trust in your hard work, you will never fail," Mane said.
The Pirates are the most dangerous when they are cornered. Pro Kabaddi's history will tell there has been no team more resilient than the current champions. As they are being written off by many, the Pirates might throw another surprise at the world.
Updated Date: Jul 29, 2017 18:36:07 IST