In the recent seasons of the Pro Kabaddi League, star-driven teams have increasingly encountered a waning success rate. With teams focussing on multi-pronged attacks and with a higher number of permitted substitutions allowing coaches to make strategic pairings, relying on one player to carry the team through, like Pawan Sehrawat did for Bengaluru Bulls or Pardeep Narwal often did back for Patna Pirates is well and truly a fad of the past.
However, if one looks at Bengal Warriors and how they’ve turned out in the seasons since their championship win in the seventh edition, it would seem like the men in blue did not get the memo.
The team’s raiding fortunes are heavily dependent on its captain and star raider Maninder Singh.
In 11 games, the Warriors have five wins, four losses and two draws with Maninder’s performance dictating which way momentum swings for the side. For all the pressure on his shoulders, Maninder remains remarkably uncomplicated through it all. At one point, the hardest thing for him to figure out was how to style his hair. There too he chose comfort over pizzazz early on to ensure nothing distracted him from the demands of the mat
Maninder sported a Johnny Bravo-esque spike last season but settled for something relatively shorter and more conservative at the start of ninth edition.
“I cut my hair at this shop back in my city and the guy there keeps suggesting changes from time to time. When I did that and came here, I struggled to maintain it. I cut it short enough so I could handle it in between the matches but it’s getting back to where it was,” Maninder said.
RAIDING THE AUTOMATIC WEAPON OF CHOICE
A detached attitude is almost essential for the man whose background and responsibilities on the mat for his team don’t exactly allow him space to slack off.
“My father, Gurdeep Singh, used to play circle kabaddi so I watched him play and picked up an interest in the sport. Another influence for me in Kabaddi is Rann Singh. I’ve watched him play so much. We’ve played together for Punjab Police and in ProKabaddi too,” he added.
Maninder’s muscular physique is almost defender-like. While raiders look for flexibility and agility as attributes to nurture, Maninder has made his pure brute strength his biggest weapon and says the decision to pick raiding as his specialty was perhaps his life’s easiest.
“I love raiding. My father was a raider. Raniya paaji was also a raider. Pakadna mere ko mushkil kaam lagta hai bohot zyada. Kisi se chhoot ke jaana zyada aasan hai. (I find catching and tackling very hard. It’s easier to slip away from someone’s grasp),” Maninder said.
LONE WOLF ACT?
Both Maninder and head coach K Baskaran brush off the suggestion that the team’s fortunes revolve around how the stars favour Mani on a given day.
“I do agree that Maninder gets us maximum number of points and support for him can be better from the others. But Maninder is not the only man playing for Bengal. His team motivates him through his raids and he feeds off their energies immensely,” Baskaran said.
“I don’t feel pressure as such. It’s not like I am out here playing kabaddi all along. I have Deepak (Niwas Hooda) and Shrikant (Jadhav) alongside me. How we look at things is, if someone is playing well or if a plan is working, then let him or let the plan work and take its course. If Deepak finds points, then he takes charge or if I do, I lead the raiding,” Maninder chimed in.
AN EYE ON THE RECORD BOOKS
While the childlike naughtiness has endured experiences and time, the 32-year-old is now a husband and father too. However, when it’s time to regroup with his compatriots for an Indian camp, he finds a partner in crime in Pardeep Narwal.
“Pardeep and I are very good friends. We’re related as well so we get together a lot. We have a good relationship going as we get together in India camps too and try to always room with each other. He does not let me be at all but is a great guy. Tagde player ke saat saat tagda insaan bhi hai (he’s a gem of a player and a person),” Maninder said.
The two speak fondly about their relationship but on the mat, Pardeep (1457 raid points as of November 11) and Maninder (1114 raid points) occupy the first and second spots in the overall raid points tally. The suggestion of a competition between the two for the top spot brings a smile to Maninder’s face.
“I have never thought about the numbers. When we come to ProKabaddi, these guys keep telling us what the stats are. My aim is to keep going and keep raiding and I’ll try to go ahead of Pardeep for sure.”
As far as ambitions go, there are two other pressing targets - another title for the Warriors and the Asian Games next year. However, Maninder lives one day at a time.
“I believe in God a lot and I believe that what has to happen will happen. Those who must win will win, and those who must lose will lose. Our job is to try. All I tell the boys is to play openly and to show their skill. Nothing can be better or help more than that,” the Warriors captain said.
The raiding pool for the national side has a number of illustrious names in the mix and a bunch of promising youngsters snapping at their heels. So how does Maninder set himself aside from the rest?
“I think I have a lot of power and I spend a lot of time nurturing that. I keep talking to Raniya paaji a lot and he tells me to keep working on my power as much as I can. Power se khelna mujhe bohot badiya lagta hai ji (I love playing to my power),” he added.
With 121 points to his name so far this season, Maninder has scored about 65 per cent of Bengal’s raid points (team total: 238 thus far) which is not exactly a stat the team will be happy about. While the set-up figures out how to iron out its chinks with the knockouts fast approaching, their captain will hope to power his way through and take his team along.