"If you look at our former players, they are the leading players in all the teams now. They are there because of their performances in U Mumba. We have the ability to produce champion players and champion teams. Even if we don't have the same set of players now, I believe we have the spirit to make another top side from the players we have," U Mumba coach Bhaskaran Edachery had told Firstpost in July ahead of the fifth edition of Pro Kabaddi League.
With a captain of Anup Kumar's stature at his disposal, and a squad with a good blend of experience and youth, Edachery's pre-season confidence was perhaps justified. But three months on, with U Mumba missing out on a play-off spot, it seems the former India coach got his calculations wrong.
The challenge for all teams ahead of the revamped PKL season was to forge together a squad big enough to survive the grind of the three-month long season. U Mumba appeared to have struck a fine balance on that front. In addition to Anup, the team had several experienced figures in Joginder Narwal, D Suresh Kumar and Shabeer Bapu. In Kashiling Adake and Kuldeep Singh, the team had also acquired two fine young players with proven track records in the league. The rest of the squad comprised youngsters with noteworthy performances in local and national-level competitions, but with little or no experience of the glitzy, physically demanding and high-pressure PKL.
Edachery would have hoped to slowly blood these young players as the season progressed, but below-par performances from the first-choice players and injuries to the likes of Joginder, Suresh and later Bapu meant U Mumba were forced to throw their younger players like Surinder Singh, N Renjith and Shrikanth Jadhav into the mix far earlier than anticipated.
The Mumbai side made the worst possible start to the season when they were crushed 21-33 by the Puneri Paltan in the opening match. Despite regrouping and winning their second match against Haryana Steelers by a solitary point, Anup and Co struggled to produce consistent displays.
Mumbai's defence lacked organisation and cohesiveness, which were trademarks of their sides in the past, and thus they failed to contain teams, putting a lot of pressure on their raiders to win them the games. In the three wins that the Season 2 champions managed in their first 10 matches, the raiders accounted for 68, 48 and 73 percent of the total points they scored in those games.
Once again, captain Anup led from the front, contributing 25 percent of U Mumba's points in the first 10 games.. In the three matches they won, either Bapu or Adake recorded a high score that helped the Mumbai outfit get over the line. But in the matches they dipped in form, U Mumba's defensive frailties proved too much for lone-ranger Anup to make up for.
Anup, whose job in previous U Mumba sides was primarily to stay on the mat and control matters, had to take risks in order to score points. With Anup spending more time on the bench than usual, U Mumba collapsed to defeats from positions of strength due to a lack of leadership on the mat.
The struggling defence was further weakened with Joginder and Suresh suffering injuries. Youngsters Surinder and Renjith, who came in as replacements, found it hard to find their feet in a defence already struggling for confidence. A five-game losing streak that stretched into their home leg at NSCI, so often their fortress in the past, meant U Mumba were always playing catch-up for the rest of the season.
It was only after Adake came to the party that Anup was able to spend more time on the mat and dictate terms. The former Dabang Delhi raider's return to form corresponded with Mumbai side's four-game winning run. Young raiders Shrikanth and Darshan Kadian also made useful contributions in patches, but U Mumba's failure to address defensive problems meant every winning run was followed by a string of losses. The defence failed to learn from their mistakes, and made repeated errors that made even Anup — known for his on-mat composure — lose his cool at times. U Mumba conceded the most all-outs (36) in the season and also conceded the most points (757).
U Mumba's dependence on their skipper was staggering. Captain Anup, at times, took it on himself to aid the defence. He scored 23 tackle points in the entire season, to end up as the team's third-highest scoring defender. For someone who is primarily a raider, that figure is astonishing.
But with the captain requiring to score points on all fronts, teams were able to focus all their energies on getting the influential U Mumba leader out of action. On many occasions, he could only pass instructions from the bench, when his trademark pat on the back that preceded a piece of advice in their ears of his players, was the need of the hour.
Even Surinder, who is the only U Mumba player among the top-10 tacklers in the league with 58 tackle points, made 94 unsuccessful tackles, thus giving away a lot more points than he actually gained for his side. The youngster's indecisiveness at crucial junctures cost the team points on more occasions than one, but the fact that he was thrown in the firing line reflects poorly on their squad strength.
U Mumba might have finished fourth, just a place below the qualifying slots, but there is a gulf between them and the teams that qualified from Zone A. After failing to reach the knockout stage for the second season running, the Mumbai side need to stop dwelling in the past, and focus on rebuilding for the next season.
While the decision to retain Anup has proved to be the correct one, their acquisitions during the auctions have failed to play to potential. Whether to stick with them or replace them is a decision that the team management will have to take ahead of the next campaign, but the Ronnie Screwvala-owned outfit have to make sure the fitness of their players is at an optimum level, especially considering the requirements of a three-month long season.
Anup's abilities, both as a player and captain are unparalleled, but he can work his magic only if he's given a fitter and more matured U Mumba squad to lead next season.
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Updated Date: Oct 17, 2017 13:51:17 IST