When a team has Pawan Sehrawat as the centre of its strategy the way Tamil Thalaivas did ahead of the ninth season of the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL), it’s hard to see anyone else stealing the spotlight.
However, destiny dealt a cruel hand to the Thalaivas, with their marquee player injuring his right leg in his very first outing.
Sehrawat’s injury threw a spanner in the works for Thalaivas, triggering a rapid decline in momentum and the eventual resignation of coach J. Udaya Kumar (albeit for personal reasons). However, it also paved the way for a debutant to take the mat by storm — a young 22-year-old raider called Narender.
Hailing from Budain, the same village which gave the sport a talent like Vikash Kandola, Narender appears to be relishing the responsibility of solely leading his team’s offence and the pressure of stepping into Sehrawat’s shoes. He has amassed 102 raid points in 10 games so far — almost 52.57 per cent of his team’s total raid points (194 raid points as of November 5).
Narender’s persistence, despite the rest of the team floundering, has paid off. A Thalaivas unit that won only one game in its first six matches has now garnered 13 points in its last three games.
“I first began playing when I was 12. I used to watch senior players like Vikash Kandola and Sandeep Kandola as I started playing in the mud since we didn’t have a mat in the village,” Narender told Sportstar.
From watching him on television, Narender went on to train with Sandeep Kandola.
“He (Sandeep) used to coach all of us in the village back in 2013. He taught me the fundamentals of the game. I then travelled to SAI Gandhinagar to train with coach Jaiveer Sharma who helped me get better.”
Narender played in the Khelo India Youth Games in 2019 and again in 2021 before catching the eye of the Tamil Thalaivas management.
The raider was roped in through the New Young Players’ (NYP) programme by Thalaivas earlier this season based on his performances in the K7 stage-up league, junior Nationals and Khelo India Youth Games.
Narender is as stoic off the mat as he is on it. It is difficult to get the man to smile, even if he has just pulled off a herculean 24-raid point loot against defending champion Dabang Delhi. It’s easy to see the responsibilities the youngster is entrusted with in how pensive he usually is, but Narender denies any of these worries bothering him. That said, he does reflect on how massive a loss Pawan’s injury was for the team.
“He was the strike raider with the power to take 30 or even 40 points in a game, and it is unfortunate to not have his services. It truly is a significant loss for us.”
While calling the PKL experience “surreal”, he too, like most others, struggled to adjust to the high-profile tournament initially. He credits the role his seniors, like Sagar, Sahil and Pawan, played in grounding him.
“They told me not to focus on things like the lights and just play my natural game.”
Narender comes off as a coach’s delight, happy to follow blueprints laid down for him.
“Coach (Ashan Kumar) wanted us to slow down the pace, and we followed his instructions because that’s the best way to proceed,” said Narender, describing the strategy in one of his matches.
One wonders how devastatingly lethal Pawan and Narender would have been together, a combination opponents and fans will wait for with bated breath.