Pro Kabaddi 5: The raid begins

12 teams; two zones; three months of non-stop action spread across the country — the fifth season of the Pro Kabaddi League, commencing on July 28, promises to ignite city rivalries, test the endurance levels of players and get the fans to root for more. We got talking to the 12 teams, and all of them agreed that Pro Kabaddi 5 may be a battle of minds, it may test one’s technical prowess, but the fittest will triumph.

Action in the ProKabaddi League Season 4 final between Jaipur Pink Panthers and Patna Pirates in 2016. Season 5 of the league begins on July 28.

BENGAL WARRIORS

Player: Surjeet Singh, defender, cover position

On being roped in by the franchise for a whopping Rs. 73 lakh (the most expensive defender in PKL history):

I am really grateful to my franchise for showing faith in me. When I was picked by Bengal Warriors for such a whopping deal, it was a bit surprising for me. I thought why would they pay so much, and now, it’s time to prove my worth. We have a good side, all the players are working hard and we should be doing good.

On the team’s target for the season:

The league is a bit longer this time around, so it is important to remain fit. We have some really good players and we will definitely try to make the most of it. In the long league, fitness will play an important part.

Sandip Tarkas: CEO, Bengal Warriors

On team composition:

This time we took some bold steps. We have overhauled the entire team and have kept only two players. Taking lessons from last season, where things didn’t go the way we expected, the focus is more on the fitness of the players. That is something we are working on. It is definitely a positive sign.

With an overhaul, what is the main area of attention?

As of now, the team bonding is really good and we have gone in for a 40-day training with the players, where the focus is mainly on fitness. In a longer tournament, fresh legs are really important and that is one of the major areas we have worked on. Earlier, there were cases where players would lose morale as the teams were announced prior to the match. The ones left out would slow down on fitness. But this time we will keep everything under wraps, so that everyone remains fit.

BENGALURU BULLS

Player: Rohit Kumar, Raider (team captain)

On the team’s preparations:

The preparations are good. We have a good side and hopefully things will go our way. The coach is working hard on developing the skills and the overall development of the players. There’s no room for mistake in this league, and we are just trying to ensure that things start well.

On expectations this time:

Every game will count this time. The target is to deliver the goods and grab the title for the team.

Uday Sinh Wala, CEO and owner

On what is going to be the most important factor this season:

With the addition of teams, the concentration of the senior players has been broken. So, in this edition of the tournament, mental strength of players will be very important. Along with the fitness level, the long league would demand the players remaining mentally strong and fresh. That’s one of the major points, and as a team, the target is to at least get into the semis.

On how tough will it be to get accustomed to the new home venue — Nagpur:

Everyone will be surprised to see the amount of support we would get in Nagpur. Over the seasons, the Bulls have been able to develop a culture and set up a fan base across the country. That is something which will help us attract fans in Nagpur as well.

GUJARAT FORTUNE GIANTS

Player: Sukesh Hegde, Raider and Captain

On the team’s preparation:

It is a long season. For over a month we have been preparing and training ourselves at the camp in Gandhinagar. We follow a fitness schedule which has been prescribed by the fitness coach. Then we do swimming, then there is gym session again. We practise in the evening. It is a young and balanced team and we will do well. It is a good time for all of us.

On the recognition received due to Pro Kabaddi:

Kabaddi was earlier played in the rural areas. Nobody knew much about kabaddi around urban areas, or how it is played. But, due to ProKabaddi even young kids know what the sport is all about. Not only that, they recognise the players. I would urge youngsters to play the game as it has a good future.

Sanjay Adesara, CEO

On entering the PKL for the first time:

We are excited about the season. This season of the Pro Kabaddi League will have four new teams, and we are one of them. We are new in the professional league arena and we are pretty much excited about it. Whatever happens to the Gujarat team, the overall season will be exciting. That’s for sure.

On what holds the key:

The format has changed this time, and the league is now for 13 weeks. Whatever research we did before the auction, it was understood that since it is an injury-prone game, the fitness of the players will be a major focus. We have invested more on the young players. Our team happens to be the one loaded with many youngsters. As far as player selection is concerned, we have invested in picking up the duos. Be it the Iranian defenders, or picking up Sunil and Parvez, the major focus is on picking the young players.

DABANG DELHI

Player: Nilesh Shinde, Right-corner defender and captain

On Pro Kabaddi experience:

The experience has been great so far. Despite being an ancient Indian sport, it wasn’t glamourous. But due to Pro Kabaddi League, people know the sport much better, there is money. There weren’t any jobs earlier. Now because of ProKabaddi, many players have got jobs at various places. It is a wonderful platform for both youngsters and senior players to grow.

On the importance of fitness:

Fitness is very important in kabaddi as it is a body contact sport. There is a lot of injuries. If you aren’t fit, then one will be prone to ankle, ligament, knee and various injuries. It is essential to develop strength and be fit to play kabaddi.

Saumya Khaitan, CEO of DoIT Sports Management

On the upcoming season:

Expectations are very high. This season kabaddi has gone on to become the biggest league in the country in terms of number of teams — there are 12 teams. As for territorial aspect, 71% of the country is being covered — Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh — the demographics coming into the picture. We hope that kabaddi will soon become an Olympic sport and we will win a gold medal.

On Nilesh Shinde:

He is going to play a very critical part. He has already started doing that in the camp. He is guiding the team, teaching the youngsters how the sport is played. He has played with most of the players from the other teams, he has observed them, he knows the weaknesses and strengths of the teams. His presence has added a lot of value. With the coach, he is guiding the team, telling about the right things to do — when to be patient at times, when to be energetic at times, when to attack or defend. He is teaching the team to not only understand its own talent, but to understand the opponent and use it to the team’s benefit.

UP YODDHA

Player: Nitin Tomar, Raider

On being the most expensive player (Rs. 93 lakh) at the auction and the opportunity to play for home franchise:

It’s a great feeling to play for my home side. It was a great experience playing for Bengal Warriors and Puneri Paltans. When the auction was going on, I didn’t expect to be picked for such money. I am very happy and so is my family. But money is not that important for me.

On the team’s pre-season:

Our pre-season is going on in Aligarh, Delhi and it’s coming along well. The camp is scheduled until the 26th. Everyone is keen for the new season.

Hemant Dua, CEO

On Nitin Tomar’s signing:

It was a well thought out plan to get a local star who could be an icon player and drive our fan base. This gentleman comes from the western sugar belt. Besides that he is a brilliant player who is a great all-rounder. His skills and his heritage (of being from UP) helped in our decision. He became the expensive player, that’s his luck and the dynamics of the auction.

On the auction and coaching staff:

We are happy with the great mix of players. Rishank Devadiga, Nitin, Jeeva Kumar are great players. We have a good number of young players. We also have two coaches who complement each other — Udaya Kumar from Telugu Titans and Arjun Singh from Patna Pirates. Both those teams have done successfully in the past few seasons. These guys come with different sets of techniques. One is a strategist and the other is a task leader. The team is gelling well and coming together nicely. We have had our first camp and they did pretty well.

TAMIL THALAIVAS

Player: Ajay Thakur, Raider and Captain

On captaincy:

I have captained sides before but this is the first time I am getting to captain a Pro Kabaddi side, so it’s a new challenge. With new players around, it is also difficult as you have to manage and help train them as well. Most of them are inexperienced, but they are learning and are excited about it. They understand what is required to be done.

How has the league helped shape the players?

The league has changed the lives of the kabaddi players. After the Asian Games, people have started recognising players like me and Rahul (Chaudhri). The league has helped us financially as well. It feels good when people shout out your names during matches.

Varun Tripuraneni, CEO

On choosing a Tamil Nadu team:

We had four options, Gujarat, TN, UP and Haryana. When we talk about kabaddi, the first thing we talk about is Tamil Nadu. The sport originated from TN and we have seen a number of TN players in the league over the last couple of years. We did a bit of due diligence and found excellent response when we spoke about TN. To be honest, it was an easy choice for us; it was the No. 1 option for us and we are very happy we won the bid.

On the response from sponsors:

We are comfortable with how things have shaped up. We had our launch recently. Also we now have three sports in football, badminton and kabaddi. So it is a good opportunity to package it and bring brands on board for all three sports or two sports. That way it gives us good options. We have been successful with one or two partnerships that way. Also the team did a tour of Tamil Nadu recently where we had a great response. It is the first time people in the State are getting to cheer for their own team. This is a start. We will be investing in grassroots heavily. We are the only team to find a coach for the whole year. The objective is for Bhaskaran to work at the grassroots level not only in Chennai but also in the districts and find young talent. His role will be to work year long and develop young players through the year.

On Sachin’s passion for kabaddi:

It’s a sport which he has been following. It’s a sport close to his heart and he is a big sports fan in general. And he is always there for the team and he will be following the team’s fortunes keenly.

TELUGU TITANS

Player: Rahul Chaudhri

On the team’s preparations and coach:

Camp is going well and preparations are coming along well too. Aim for any season is always high but the real talk happens on the ground. New players have come in, and we have a new coach (Naveen Kumar) as well. All players are getting along with the ideas our coach is trying to get through to us. He is pointing out the areas we need to work on. Just like how the players have their styles of play a coach has his own style too.

On his fifth season with Telugu Titans and captaincy:

I have learnt how to help the team focus on our game. If someone is down or makes an error, it’s my duty to lift him and make him understand. As a captain, I have to make sure the team also performs at a good level and also my game is at a good level. And I also have senior players around me to seek advice from.

Pavan Kumar, Telugu Titans CEO

On success with PKL:

It was unknown as to how big it would become. It was a dormant sport but now PKL has helped reach 75% of the population with the 12 teams on board. We started with less players and money, but now we have players who are among the highest paid in the league. Coming to Telugu Titans, it’s a big success in Hyderabad, where we play. It’s the most successful team in the league. We have the most viewership. Rahul Chaudhri brings in a lot of value to our side.

On choosing a young coach this year:

We want to win the title this year and I think we have an accomplished coach for that. He was a member of the Indian teams that won the gold at the 2006 Asian Games and the 2007 World Cup. And he has won titles with Services as a coach. So we have a winner both as a player and a coach. With him at the top we have a good chance of continuing success. We should bank on his experience and help achieve good things with this squad.

HARYANA STEELERS

Player: Mohit Chillar

On the team’s preparations:

Preparations have been good. We have been putting in the hard work. It is a new season and a new team (Haryana Steeler’s first season). We are learning a lot of new things. At our camp in Bengaluru, we have been given all the facilities. We have international trainers who are focussing on our fitness and nutrition and their training regime is great. It is the best preparatory camp that I have had so far.

On pre-PKL and post PKL:

Before the PKL, you played kabaddi, you got a job, you played international tournaments like the Asian Games, Commonwealth Games and World Cup. We still do that and it is important for us. But once the competitions got over, we were back home and at work. After the launch of PKL, it is round-the-clock work. We have to train during the off-season also. No one thought PKL would become so big. It happened, so it is good. I was always a kabaddi professional, but now everyone knows our faces.

On captaincy:

I am just a 24-year-old. I have to think about playing now. I have time to become a captain. It is time to concentrate on my performance, not captaincy. We have to lift the trophy. That is all I am looking to do right now.

Mustafa Ghouse, CEO of JSW Sports

On the reason for getting into kabaddi:

From the first year, there has been a huge amount of success linked to the league. It is the way the entire team at Star Sports and Mashal Sports have caught everyone’s fancy with the execution and promotion of the league. The look and feel of things is so different from what we perceive kabaddi to be. We have seen kabaddi in a different light. So, when there was an opportunity to get into the league, we thought it is something that would be fun for us. Yeah we have been eyeing it since the success of the first season. We were approached right in the beginning as well, but at that time we had just started the Bengaluru FC (football club). We didn’t have the bandwidth or the experience to manage two teams at the same time. So we couldn’t take it up at that stage. Ever since, the comfort and confidence of running a successful football team has made us feel we have the expertise to do it.

On team composition:

We were looking at a balanced squad. We spent a good amount of time with the coaches to understand their thought process, their preference for players. They have got a lot of experience. They know every player inside-out, they know their strengths and weaknesses. They knew what would fit into their coaching style. It is similar to how we do it at the BFC. The onus of building the squad and putting the squad together lies with the technical staff. That is no different with the kabaddi team.

PUNERI PALTAN

Player: Deepak Niwas Hooda, raiding all-rounder and captain

On areas of focus:

The main focus is on fitness, skills and technical game. If our body is fit, injury chances become less. We can’t play a rough and tough game for three months. We have to rely on technique and mental strength. We are also focussed on the technical aspect of the game, to play in the final. This season will be a fitness test. If you are fit, half your problems are solved. It is easy to collect more points. We can manage only when we are fit. Mind responds well when the body is fit. Mark my words, fitness will decide who wins and who loses.

On the pressures of captaincy:

I have become used to problems and struggles, so nothing is difficult for me. I am looking at captaincy only as a responsibility. It is a responsibility, not a pressure. My responsibility is that I play well so that others could get motivation from that. We live like a family, we will give our heart and soul for the game. We have been losing in the semifinal stage the last two seasons. It won’t happen this time. My job is to keep the team motivated and take it to the final. We are confident of winning the title this time.

Kailash Kandpal, CEO

On team composition:

When we retained Deepak Hooda, who is our young star, we had the idea of building the team around him which will be with us for the next 3-5 years. Our strategy revolves around Deepak. He is a young player and has been doing well. He has been leading the local club. If you have to build a team for the future, Deepak is the right guy. Another two to three years will give him enough experience. We definitely want to invest time and also have a regime for him. He is the icon player for the team for the coming years. Then there is Rajesh Mondal. He has lifted the cup twice for Patna with his raiding. Then we also have Rohit Chaudhary who fired very well for Dabang Delhi in Season 3. We have all-rounder Sandeep Narwal. We have two raiders from Services: G.B. More and Suresh. We have young raiders, Monu and Rinku Narwal. We have Akshay Jadhav and Umesh Mhatre. I think our team is well-balanced.

On the facilities for the players:

Everything has gone up, the quality of training, the diet they follow. The kind of physical strengthening that they follow and the kind of rehab that they undergo, it’s all gone up now. We know it is a contact sport, players get injured. If he is an important player or part of the team, we need to get him up on the mat. Hence, physical strength and physical fitness, diet and rehabilitation are important and it has gone up significantly higher than it was in season one and two.

U MUMBA

Player: Anup Kumar, Raider

On the team’s pre-season:

Preparations are going well and everyone is excited. It has been a while since we have practised, so everyone was eager to get together. We are now waiting for the matches to start and showcase our performances.

On being retained by U Mumba and the season ahead:

I have been with them for five years now. We live like a family. There is a great rapport between the team, the staff and the management. Last season’s team (finished 5th) was different to what we have now. Eight player changes have been made. It’s necessary to work hard and to start well in the league to have a good season. The defence and attack are looking good for us. Our raiders are very strong and defence is also equally good. We have good experienced and young players in defence.

Supratik Sen, CEO

On U Mumba’s success on and off the field:

In a sport, everyone loves a winning side. For that, performance is key to everything. We have a great coach and captain. We found a good fitting team. Every season we aimed to make the play-offs. We are a three-time finalist and a one-time winner. Based on this, we have done good campaigns with the youth. Without the fans you are nothing. And, what is a greater fan engagement than doing something for the kids who then can find a way into a team and that too yours. So our future stars programme and our gurukuls have helped in engaging the fans. We are the first to say that kabaddi players are going to be no less athletes than others in this country. We have given it a fillip. We have done interesting things with fashion designers, we (UTV) would be the first makers of a (kabaddi feature) film. The production of the film is in progress.

On the expansion of the league:

For any evolved league you need good teams and most evolved leagues are between 7-10 months and have 18-20 teams. So this is the first league in the country to have 12 teams and subsequently the aim would be to have more. To have a wider base means you are seen for much longer, so the base extends from there. The average TRP of our team is around 2.8 pan India and in the region we have 3.9 which is very good TRP.

PATNA PIRATES

Player: Vishal Mane, Defender, right-cover

On areas of focus:

We have focussed more on fitness this time. The camp has been running for 30 days. As far as I am concerned, I will try and hone my thigh-hold for the upcoming season. It is a long season which requires more fitness — sprints, swimming, circuit training and gym — we have prepared our schedule accordingly.

On the expectations from the team (Patna is a two-time defending champion):

All my team-mates are from Haryana. Sachin Shingade is from Maharashtra. There’s great camaraderie between us and we all respect each other. So it feels good. Our team faces higher expectations but the pressure will be on the opposition because we are mentally and physically fit.

Pawan S Rana, CEO

On the reason behind investing in a sport like kabaddi:

Kabbadi has a deep-rooted connect with India’s tradition. This traditional sport still remains true to its inherent character which is built around community participation. This excited us to foray into kabbadi and be part of its changing narrative. Over the last few years we have been very excited about our contribution to this immensely popular sport. If we look from a holistic perspective this venture has been very profitable.

On the league doing so well and being commercially viable:

As I said this sport has a deep root in our culture and I firmly believe that anything rooted has immense potential. This league is an outstanding example of this belief. It is not only commercially viable, but it is sustainable, too, for all stakeholders in this sport. It has a great future as more and more investment is coming in. Brands are looking at opportunities to connect with their target cohort and the popularity of this league has exactly provided that window. It has proved to be a mutually beneficial relationship for franchisee owners and brands. Patna Pirates is hoping for a hat-trick by winning the fifth season and this has certainly contributed in enhancing our equity among brands.

JAIPUR PINK PANTHERS

Player: Manjeet Chhillar, all-rounder and captain

On playing as captain (he was captain in all the seasons):

I have captained Bengaluru and Pune sides as well... Abhishek (Bachchan, owner) has shown so much trust and given me the captaincy in spite of being in a new team. I want to thank him. If I give a 100 per cent result, then he will know he didn’t make a mistake by making me the captain. We have been preparing well together. As a captain, I think my decisions are right 99 per cent of the time. I always keep the team together and ensure they play as one and live like a family. That is my main responsibility and I am sure I will do that this season as well.

On the changes in his life after PKL:

When I used to play for India, no one really knew me. Only my friends and family knew I was representing the country and winning medals. Now everyone knows my face. It feels good that the world recognises me. It gives you a different kind of happiness. Players like me, Anup, have all got our identity now. It is a victory for kabaddi. When the pro-league came into being, we knew it would become big. It is an amalgamation of multiple sports. It has rugby, wrestling, running, all combined into one. No other game has seven players catching one. It provides more fun.

Balwan Singh, head coach

On fitness:

We have to work on fitness along with the team composition. It is a long league. You have to maintain peak form for a longer period of time. Instead of mud, it is played on mat, so it requires a different level of fitness. You need a lot of endurance training and the players should have all the amenities to give their best. You cannot stand on the mat without proper fitness.

On challenges for a coach and team’s preparation:

We have to keep working hard because the team keeps changing. So, it becomes a little difficult for the coaches to train different persons with different levels of skills. It is a challenging job, but we are doing fine. The team we have with us is the best. We have been following a special training regime. It keeps changing but we can’t reveal the type of training and it is vastly different from training a national team for international tournaments. As per our knowledge, we do the best possible thing we can, for the team.

— Anjana Senthil, Sudatta Mukherjee, Shayan Acharya & Aashin Prasad

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