It was early in 2016 in which the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL) took the leap of faith.
It became the first Indian sports league to have two seasons in a year. The opening season, the third of Pro Kabaddi, was unveiled in January 2016 with defending champions U Mumba taking on hosts Telugu Titans in Hyderabad. India was already hooked onto this fast-paced, glitzy version of their desi sport, and the season dished out the grandest of finals.
A lot had been established in the first two seasons of the League — from the measure of each team, to the fan favourites and go-to players to their favourite moves. Kabaddi players had been yanked out of obscurity and turned into celebrities.
Ahead of the third season, U Mumba had firmly set themselves up as a powerhouse, storming into the playoffs on each occasion and making it to both the previous finals, winning the second. For the third season, U Mumba were the team to beat, but a new look Pirates team led by a skipper that rivaled Anup Kumar himself, had come up with a solid challenge that threatened, and eventually toppled the Mumbai franchise.
Along the way, a group of unknown youngsters that made a solid mark in the season joined the elite list that includes the likes of Anup, Manjeet Chhillar, Rakesh Kumar, Ajay Thakur, Rahul Chaudhari et al.
Journey of the champions
The Patna Pirates, dressed in green, had been unable to get past the semi-finals in the first two seasons, but produced a brave, brash brand of Kabaddi in the third.
Having got off to the winning start, it was a victory over defending champions U Mumba in their third match of the season that announced their arrival. The Pirates stormed through to a 14-point win against the Mumbai franchise that had fielded its strongest squad — the likes of Anup, Rishank Devadiga, Mohit Chhillar, Surender Nada, and even former Pirates skipper Rakesh Kumar making the team.
Patna went undefeated for the first 10 matches of the season and made the play-offs easily, finishing second to U Mumba in the league table. Their two losses in the season came against U Mumba, a second-leg clash, and an inconsequential, yet entertaining, 42-41 loss to Telugu Titans.
New coach Sanjiv Baliyan had brought into his young team a sense of purpose, which saw them blaze through the staunchest of defences and quell the hardest of raiders. With that kind of form, a resurgent Puneri Paltan, who had acquired the services of PKL posterboys Ajay Thakur and Manjeet Chhillar, were hapless against the Pirates in the 19-point semi-final rout.
In the final, they’d meet U Mumba yet again.
On paper, the contest was even. The youthful Pirates had an experienced hand in captain Manpreet Singh. A gold medallist at the 2002 Asian Games, Manpreet had just about fulfilled the '85 or under' weight criteria for PKL, and his experience could rival that of Anup.
Their young raiders, Rohit Kumar and Pardeep Narwal, had taken the attack to the opponents relentlessly through the season. And even though the latter was out in the third minute with injury, Patna raced to a 12-3 lead by the 10th.
It wasn't until the 15th minute, when an otherwise defensively sound U Mumba line-up notched up their first tackle point, but Patna still took an eight-point lead into the break. Despite the shaky start, U Mumba started to exert pressure, and heading into the last minute of play, Anup brought the scores to 28-28 with the defending champions firmly in charge.
In the next Pirates raid, a do-or-die one, substitute Deepak Narwal marched into the opponents' half and miraculously won a touch point. Trailing 29-28, Anup stepped in for what was the penultimate raid of the night, but crucially lost his balance and stepped out of bounds to increase Patna's lead.
There was still time for another raid, this time Sandeep Narwal took charge. All the 23-year-old needed to do was idle away some time and walk back, but instead the maverick returned to his half with a touch point that took the score to 31-28, sealing the title for the Pirates.
With Services allowing their players to be a part of the commercial, highly-successful League, Rohit got his chance in the spotlight. The 27-year-old had a slow start to the season, but got better and more confident as the season unveiled. He raked up 102 raid points to finish third in the leaderboard. In the final, after teammate Pardeep fell to injury, Rohit stepped up his game and came off with eight crucial raid points. At the end of the season, Rohit was declared the season’s Most Valuable Player (MVP).
He made his PKL debut as a tender age of 18, but made an instant impact. Not a player who boasts much grace or elegance on the mat, Pardeep is a skilled escape artist with the tendency of giving his team an early lead. He was declared the season’s best raider with 116 points. It was a performance that earned him a call-up to the national team as well for the World Cup later in the year.
The Bengal Warriors’ star raider Jang Kun Lee was being burdened as the team’s sole raider, especially after the departure of Rajesh Mondal to the Patna Pirates. Instead, the Warriors managed to acquire Nitin Tomar for the season. The Navy man’s work rate and effective raiding reduced the pressure on Lee, who then had the freedom to attempt high-risk moves. Tomar, meanwhile, was sharp in attack and equally helpful in defence. Eventually he picked up 77 points that season and a place to the World Cup squad later in the year. At the auction ahead of fifth season, Tomar was purchased by the Uttar Pradesh Yoddhas for a record Rs 93 lakhs.
Significance of the season for Kabaddi
Buoyed by the success of the first two seasons, the PKL organisers showed ambition in conceiving a two-seasons-a-year calendar. On paper it makes a lot of sense, the League had been an unexpected hit on the financial and popularity charts. The sprinkling of Bollywood stardust didn’t hurt. More importantly, the players benefitted not only financially, but it earned them more visibility and scope to improve.
Season 3 was the first part of year that would also have the Kabaddi World Cup, and it threw up a few interesting and new names that got a chance to vie for a spot in the national team.
Updated Date: Jul 21, 2017 16:24:23 IST