When Pro Kabaddi League (PKL) decided to open its arms to a bigger and longer season, the kabaddi-loving state of Uttar Pradesh could no longer be kept away. Winners of the national championship in 2015, Uttar Pradesh had several stars like Rahul Chaudhari already making a mark in the PKL.
The popularity of the sport in one of India's largest states has always been sky-high, but without a team of their own in the PKL – the latest revolution in the sport, its status of being a major kabaddi state struggled for approval. But now the wait is over. With Dabang Delhi being the only team in the PKL from the north, having a team from Uttar Pradesh was inevitable.
The team was announced, the auctions took place, and within no time, Team Uttar Pradesh made the headlines. Nitin Tomar became the costliest kabaddi player ever as Uttar Pradesh splashed Rs 93 lakh on him. That wasn't the end of it, as marquee names like Rajesh Narwal, Rishank Devadiga and Jeeva Kumar followed Tomar into the Uttar Pradesh ranks. Even before being named UP Yoddhas, the side got its warriors.
Owned by the GMR Group under GMR League Games Private Limited, the owner set the tone before the auction. Vowing to play an attacking and accelerating game, his team's purchases backed his assertions.
Out of the eight buys made by the Yoddhas from categories A & B – the two categories with the best Indian players in the auctions – six were either raiders or raiding all-rounders. Only former U Mumba cover defender Jeeva Kumar and left-cover defender Gurvinder Singh were exceptions.
The strategy to pack the side with raiders is a risky one as it has left the UP Yoddhas short of seasoned corner defenders in their team. The corners have highly specialised roles to play in kabaddi and are the first ones to come under the attack of a raider.
A player must possess great agility, ability to make quick decisions, and great arm strength in order to survive playing in this position. And going into a 13-week long season without an experienced corner defender could be detrimental to a team's chances as it would invite opponents to target that area of the team.
But the Yoddhas coach Udaya Kumar, who has coached India to twin Asian Games gold medals in 2002 and 2006, had his own way of looking at it.
"Earlier in Pro Kabaddi, 200 Indian players used to play in eight teams. Now the same number of players have been divided into 12 teams. So no team is completely balanced or perfect. Every team has five-six senior players and the rest are comparatively new. So the team that prepares these other players in the best possible way is going to have a better season," Kumar told Firstpost in an exclusive interview.
"We had already scouted good young corner defenders before the auction. So we didn't go for the big names and invested heavily in raiders and the experienced cover defender Jeeva Kumar," he explained.
The Yoddhas have placed their faith in Santosh BS, who's a left corner defender, and will man the corners along with youngster Nitesh Kumar, until Iranian right corner defender Hadi Tajik, who is yet to join the team due to a visa issue, arrives to provide an option.
Tomar was obviously the highlight of the auction. Some critics believed the Yoddhas overpaid for the Services player, but coach Kumar who sanctioned the record purchase, once again had a reason to back his move.
"Nitin Tomar was very important for us to add balance to the team. He is a very good cover defender, but so far in the previous seasons, teams have only used him as a raider. For me he is a top all-rounder, and nobody is aware of his true potential yet. This season you will know what Tomar is actually made of," Kumar asserted.
While there are downsides to the Yoddhas' ploy of putting all eggs in one basket, it has left them with an envious line-up of raiders, that very few teams can match. With Tomar, Rajesh Narwal, do-or-die raid specialist Devadiga, well-built Mahesh Goud and Surendra Singh, the Lucknow-based outfit have an excellent variety in the raiding department, and also the numbers that may be required in a long season.
"I feel our team has very good balance, especially in the raiding department. I am a right raider, while Nitin Tomar is a left raider. This is a very good combination to have as it will be difficult for opponents to settle against us. Both of us are really committed to give it our all after UP paid so much to acquire our services," the former U Mumba raider, Devadiga, told Firstpost on the sidelines of Pro Kabaddi Media Forum last month.
A three-month-long season with matches every three-four days in different cities is going to be tiring. Durability could just be the key for teams in the end and the Yoddhas are making sure they aren't found wanting on this front.
"We had a preparatory camp in Aligarh for 21 days that started on 15 June, where the chief focus was on fitness. It's a long season and we have to ensure everyone is ready. We had an extra session everyday where we focused only on strength-building where players worked on specific parts of their bodies that they thought needed strengthening. We didn't have a fitness coach as everything happened in a hurry, but all our players are fit, even those who came to the camp with any niggles have now totally recovered," revealed coach Kumar.
The second part of the Yoddhas' training camp began on 10 July in New Delhi as the focus shifted to on-mat training. But in order to get some of the younger players – who are going to play a key role in certain defensive areas – up to the standards required in the league, the Yoddhas had a few on-mat sessions during the preparatory camp.
The Yoddhas are placed in Zone B that will include all teams from the eastern and southern parts of the country. It will mean they will face teams like Telugu Titans, defending champions Patna Pirates, Bengaluru Bulls, Bengal Warriors and fellow newcomers Tamil Thalaivas thrice, and teams from the other zones just once.
However, to secure qualification for the play-offs, they will have to finish among the top three teams in their own zone.
Looking at the combinations of the teams in their zone, the Yoddhas will fancy their chances of making the play-offs in their very first season. Despite a weakness in defence, their strong raiding department may have enough to take them to the play-offs.
It is at the latter stage, though, that the lack of seasoned corner defenders could prove to be telling. Coach Kumar, however, feels there is no reason for his team to curtail their ambitions, especially with the bunch of raiders at their disposal who are capable of steamrolling their opponents on their day and guiding the UP Yoddhas to glory on debut.
Probable starting line-up:
Right corner: Hadi Tajik, Right in: Rishank Devadiga, Right cover: Rajesh Narwal, Centre: Nitin Tomar, Left cover: Jeeva Kumar, Left in: Surendra Singh, Left corner: Santosh BS.
Updated Date: Jul 22, 2017 16:36 PM