Pro Kabaddi League 2018: Packed with plethora of all-rounders, formidable Puneri Paltan look to end agonising wait for glory
Will their poor record in the knockouts bear them down or will they harness the hurt of previous seasons to put in a wining performance? Puneri Paltan's fate hinges on their ability to deal with their own past.
Puneri Paltan have carried an aura of champions at many points in the previous three seasons of Pro Kabaddi, but haven't been able to deliver the goods when it matters the most. Two third-place finishes followed by fourth place last season, showcases the franchise's agonising journey in recent campaigns.
As season six approaches, the Puneri Paltan side, once again, look very formidable on the paper. Few would bet against the Lions reaching the playoffs. But we will have to see if they have enough to go all the way and make their first ever final or fall short by the proverbial whisker.
"In the last three season we have played very well, but haven't been able to reach the final. Under the new coach, our main focus has been finding ways to avoid the mistakes that we have committed in the latter stages of the season. There's a lot of work that we have done to improve our performance in the playoffs and I am confident that we can finally lift the trophy this time," Girish Ernak, who was announced as the new captain of the franchise told Firstpost.
"We were not able to retain our lead in the second half of games last season. As a team, it is important for us to be able to slow down matches. The best teams do that effectively and we will be looking to do it more effectively," he added.
Coach Kumar, who guided South Korea to their first ever silver medal at the Asian Games in Jakarta last month, has a great pedigree in coaching. He is a Grade A diploma holder in kabaddi coaching from the National Institute of Sports. As a player, he captained the Indian kabaddi team to gold medal in the 1990 Beijing Asian Games, where kabaddi was introduced for the first time.
The former Haryana coach's experience will come handy for the Paltan as they look to clear the final hurdles after a series of failures.
Auction purchases and team combination
Puneri Paltan retained four players from the previous season. Ernak, Sandeep Narwal, Rajesh Mondal and Gurunath More. In the auctions, the Pune side was able to purchase all-rounder Monu, defender Rinku Narwal, raider Akshay Jadhav, defenders Ravi Kumar, Vikas Khatri and Vinod Kumar. So the Puneri Paltan will more or less have the same team from last season.
Deepak Niwas Hooda was replaced with Nitin Tomar, while Dharmaraj Cheralathan was allowed to go. In the raiding department, Deepak Kumar Dahiya who had a very decent campaign with Haryana Steelers was added to provide more options for Kumar.
The big advantage for Pune is that defensive quartet of Ernak-Sandeep (corners) and Ravi-Vinod (covers) will stay intact. The Lions' defence scored a league best tally of 271 tackle points in 2017, and thanks to the continuity, the performance is likely to be better this time around.
Mondal is one of the most clever raiders in the league and his ability in do-or-die raids is matched by very few in the competition. Having a specialist do-or-die raider in your camp is a big advantage and Pune have two in Mondal and More.
In Tomar and Sandeep, the Lions possess two of the best all-rounders in the league. Add likes of Akshay Jadhav and Monu to the mix, and Pune have an extremely talented bad of all-rounders in their ranks. There is also a perfect blend of youth and experience in the team, making Pune a real force to be reckoned with.
"Tomar is the best all-rounder in India. His offensive and defensive skills are second to none and he plays with a lot of intelligence. There are many all-rounders in the team that look up to him and I feel he is the perfect mentor to them on and off the pitch," coach Kumar suggested.
Ernak will be captaining for the first time in the PKL, but Kumar feels a combination of factors make him the ideal leader for the team. The Maharashtrian who made his national team debut earlier this year feels he has the tools to be a successful captain.
"I have captained before in nationals and industrial nationals so I have prior experience of the responsibility. In the PKL, I have learnt so much about the job playing under Rakesh Kumar and Nilesh Shinde, that I know when to slow the game, how to do it, when to motivate the players and how to control the team. I am relishing the prospect of captaining Puneri Paltan," Ernak said with confidence.
Pune have few weaknesses in their squad, and barring another late season slump, they are big favourites to reach the final.
Preparation and training
Coach Ashan Kumar divided the preparation in three camps. The fitness camp was held in Goa in August for a period of 20 days, where the players with the help of fitness trainers worked towards building their fitness levels and endurance.
In the second camp, the focus slightly shifted to skill development, while fitness was still put on priority. The final camp is currently underway in Pune where the team is working on striking the best combination.
Can Pune put an end to agony?
The average age of the Pune team is on the lower side compared to other teams, yet the Lions have plenty of experience. So the team should be able to last the rigors of the league, owing to its squad depth.
Pune have fallen to the Patna Pirates on all three occasions they reached the knockout stage. Despite victories over the three-time champions in the league phase, Pardeep Narwal has played his best games against Lions from Pune. Although, the two teams are expected to cross swords just once in the group phase, the calibre of the teams means another encounter in the latter stages is on the cards.
The onus will be on Ernak and Co to find a way to keep tabs on Pardeep, if and when the two teams meet in the knockouts. "He is a special player. Whenever we face them, it's important for defenders to catch him early and hurt his confidence. We will find a strategy to stop him," Ernak said.
Pune should have enough to reach playoffs despite tough competition in Zone A, but it is beyond that where their mental resolve will be put to test. Will their poor record in the knockouts bear them down or will they harness the hurt of previous seasons to put in a wining performance? Puneri Paltan's fate hinges on their ability to deal with their own past.
It was a match between a Puneri Paltan with a strong all-round game and the UP Yoddha who needed to buckle up on their defence to compliment their in-form raiders.
Pro Kabaddi League 2018: Nitin Tomar’s early-season heroics raise further questions over national team snub
If Nitin Tomar continues his golden streak in Pune and beyond, it will become harder for selectors to ignore him when the panel meets to pick the Indian team for the Kabaddi World Cup next year.
After years and seasons that have ended in pain, Puneri Paltan will go into the new season with a burning desire for success.