Ahead of the ninth edition of the Pro Kabaddi League, Haryana Steelers triggered a makeover of sorts. Goodbyes were said to coach and Indian kabaddi legend Rakesh Kumar (whose best showing with the Steelers was a knockout finish in his maiden season with the side), and star raider Vikash Kandola who went into the auction pool (and eventually to Bengaluru Bulls).
The franchise has always taken pride in its defense and that motivated the retention of Jaideep Dahiya and Mohit Nandal who enjoyed success as a tackling pair in PKL 8. Roping in former Gujarat Giants gaffer Manpreet Singh, a player-turned-coach who enjoys constructing formidable defensive units and acquiring the likes of Iranian defender Amirhossein Bastami also underlined this priority.
In the raiding department, Kandola’s vacuum was filled with a number of promising youngsters like Manjeet Dahiya and Meetu Mahender Sharma (retained) alongside seasoned players like Prapanjan K and Rakesh Narwal.
The differences are important and manifold but one element remains the same for this franchise, irrespective of the names on the roster or the man at the helm - an inability to follow a plan.
Haryana’s season so far:
Haryana got off to a remarkable start in season nine, with two solid wins against Bengal Warriors and Tamil Thalaivas and lead raider Manjeet in fine touch. However, four losses - against Jaipur Pink Panthers, Dabang Delhi, U Mumba and Gujarat Giants and a slide in Manjeet’s form followed. Haryana has since notched up two wins (against Telugu Titans and Bengaluru Bulls), two draws (against Puneri Paltan and UP Yoddhas) and two losses (against Patna Pirates and the Bulls again), with the team now in 11th place on the table.
The team has been the biggest loser in terms of positions lost in week 5 of PKL 9, with evident errors in execution.
“Where did the team fall short?” a reporter asked.
“In every aspect,” came the reply from the coach, followed by an awkward chuckle going around the press conference room after the loss to Patna.
The former PKL winner usually dresses his disappointment with humour but one could increasingly see the big man giving up the funny man facade. Manpreet was relatively quiet through this game on the sidelines due to the fading effects of the numbing agent he was given at the dentist’s earlier in the day but he pulled all the stops post-match.
“If we make the mistakes we made today going ahead, we won’t win against anyone in the league. Raiders and defenders showed no team work. Everyone is playing their own game here and that’s hurting us.”
Manpreet referred specifically to a crunch raid in the last few minutes against Patna where the pressure was on lead raider Sachin thanks to a do-or-die raid.
“Sachin came in on a do-or-die raid and the pressure was on him. Five seconds were left in the raid and Sachin did not manage a touch but we tried an advanced catch and gave away three points.”
‘Players don’t listen to the coach’
Against Patna Pirates and Bengaluru Bulls, Haryana ended the first half on the backfoot. This was particularly steep against Randhir Singh Sehrawat’s men with a 16-point deficit ( 27-11). Nitin Rawal and his boys were then forced to play catch up.
“We set plans and decide every raid and sequence. We kept telling the boys to slow the match down. But the raiders and defenders did not listen to the plan. We told the boys to focus on smaller raids and getting quick points and not be hasty when defending,” Manpreet explained.
In the match against the Bulls, Manpreet was his animated self but something snapped in the second half. When the team continued to make hasty decisions on the mat, the coach decided not to hop over for a talk in the timeouts and did not follow the team to greet the opponents after the final whistle was blown.
“Kabaddi is a team game. If you play individually, you won’t win games. Players’ response is very good in training and when we sit down to draw out strategies. However, on the mat, they do their own thing and just don’t listen to the coach. I’m seeing this happen in the last few games. That’s something we need to fix,” he added.
Where can Haryana improve?
Haryana under Rakesh Kumar also struggled with similar ‘plan-following’ hiccups with the poison then being advanced tackles but he also had illustrious yet ageing defensive lynchpins who could not be consistent through the season. Where Manpreet is slightly ahead is that he has a fresh, young squad which has the capacity to be a bit more malleable.
Haryana is placed third among teams who have conceded the most all-outs (18) and one can increasingly see this happening to the side in the first half forcing them to spend the rest of the game just catching up with the opposition.
Manjeet’s form has dipped since the first week but it is startling to see how that has snuffed out Haryana’s opening momentum. After starting the season with a 19-point effort in his first game, Manjeet has just 88 points in the season so far. Meetu has stepped up in the process and has overtaken Manjeet with 99 points from 12 games, but he was kept on the bench against Bengaluru Bulls, which, in hindsight, backfired rather spectacularly for the men in blue.
Jaideep and Mohit have had a below-par season by their own standards. Jaideep particularly, had a breakout season last year with 66 points in 22 matches, finishing with the fourth-most tackle points. He is placed eighth, as it stands after the Bulls game, with 32 tackle points from 12 games. Glaring inconsistencies have not helped his cause. Mohit’s role was always to support - he has 25 points in 12 games so far and 42 tackle points in 22 games last season. But the numbers don’t reflect how patchy this right chain has been. They have not been functioning in tandem and have constantly given away touch points courtesy of hasty attempts or slipper ankleholds.
Ten games remain and a precious spot in the knockouts will be on the Steelers’ vision board. However, teamwork and more responsibility from the players will be key should this team hope to finish the league stage in the top six.