Jaipur Pink Panthers started slowly but improved as the season progressed to end up as champion, grabbing hold of the trophy after eight years. Injuries hurt Puneri Paltan, which finished as the runner-up.
An old champion regained its crown, youngsters showed up the old guard, and action on the mat got faster – there was much to savour from the ninth season of the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL). Here is a recap of the highs and lows from the 72-day carnival.
SEASON RECAP | Lavanya and Mayank recap the Pro Kabaddi season gone by, how Jaipur won the title and what other franchises can do ahead of the next season.
Jaipur rocking again
Jaipur Pink Panthers won the title in the first season of the PKL but couldn’t lay its hands on the trophy for the next seven. Coaches and star players came and went, but Jaipur’s luck did not change. It seemed the team would underwhelm again: it suffered a string of defeats, looked patchy in defence, and relied far too much on one man – Arjun Deshwal.
While other teams scripted fairytale comebacks, the Panthers quietly restructured their attack line, trying various combinations and strategies. Their defense improved and defenders started finding their rhythm towards the third leg of the group stage. The Panthers topped the league standings, thereby directly making it to the semifinals. Two clinical performances – against Bengaluru Bulls and Puneri Paltan – handed them the trophy once again.
“Before the season began, I asked the boys how many of them had a PKL title. Only Sunil Kumar (the captain) raised his hand. I then told the team that we will finish the league with everyone having that champion tag to their name, and we did it,” an emotional Abhishek Bachchan, the Panthers team owner, said after the final.
PKL RECAP IN NUMBERS:
- ⦿Who is the Most Valuable Player of this season?
- ⦿Who is the top raider in PKL this season - Most Raid Points and Super 10s updated list
- ⦿Who is the best defender in PKL this season - Most Tackle Points and High 5s updated list
- ⦿MVP, Orange sleeve, Green sleeve; Winner, runner-up, prize money
- ⦿Who is the New Young Player of this season?
Title, at long last, for Rahul Chaudhari
In an interview with Sportstar in 2019, Rahul Chaudhari had said he would get married only after winning the PKL title. He was with Tamil Thalaivas then, after a successful stint with Telugu Titans. His trajectory dipped from thereon, and with the trophy eluding him, he moved on in his personal life.
Cut to 2022, and many were surprised when the Panthers roped him in ahead of the ninth season. But coach Sanjeev Kumar Balliyan & Co. managed what the Thalaivas and the Paltan could not: by changing his playing role (he wasn’t a pure raider any more, but an all-rounder), the Panthers obtained more than 70 vital points from him.
“Before the final, I told Rahul that this will be a game for you. [Right] from the first season, he has been putting in the efforts to make a name for himself, so this title is for him. Rahul is the most senior player in the team but Sunil is the captain. However, the way he listened to everyone, gelled with the boys, and contributed towards this team is incredible,” Bachchan said about Rahul ‘The Showman’.
Runner-up finish for Paltan
It was a case of so near yet so far for the Paltan. Thanks to their Yuva Paltan programme – scouts recruit young talent from in and around Maharashtra – the side has a strong bench strength. Those warming the bench stepped up at various points during the season to help the side seal important wins.
“I won’t say anything to my team. It is because they stepped up at different stages that we even made it here. I am nothing but proud of them,” skipper Fazel Atrachali said after the loss in the final. The Paltan had to rely on their youngsters after injuries to their two main raiders – Aslam Inamdar and Mohit Goyat.
Players warming the bench don’t have the experience of the main players. While the side stuck with a largely stable playing combination, giving a player or two the opportunity to step in when needed, it was not nearly enough to make up for the loss of two important raiders.
Injuries: can teams do better?
PKL’s ninth chapter was bookended by injuries. Pawan Sehrawat’s knee injury during the first game he played changed the complexion of the tournament, while Inamdar and Goyat sat out for Pune in the final, hurting the team’s chances.
Randhir, Pawan’s former coach, believes that Pawan’s failure to do his warm-ups properly might have contributed to his injury. The raider barely spent 10 minutes on the mat this season, and needed surgeries on his knee.
“Pre-season testing is very important so we have baseline levels and physical state available for us to monitor,” Paltan’s physio Ankita Matondkar says.
“There are differences in body type and background preparation. Between states itself, we see differences in physicality for players. It’s a long intense season too. So our research and development needs to be spot on and we need to listen to player bodies when taking any calls and readying them for matches,” she adds.
All eyes on the coaching job
The postponement of the Asian Games in China means that this PKL season, like the one before it, was a virtual audition for the competition. It showed nations, especially India and Iran, what the talent pool looks like.
India is yet to announce the head coach of the men’s side. Ashan Kumar, who effected a turnaround with the Thalaivas, carrying them to their maiden PKL playoffs, seems to be the hot favourite.
“Ahead of the season, I was asked to take over the reins of the Indian side. Should the Amateur Kabaddi Federation of India still want me, I am here. Whatever I do, I always have an eye on what will work best for the national team,” he said before the playoffs.
That doesn’t stop others from harbouring ambitions. Bengaluru Bulls coach Randhir Sehrawat believes he can just as ably help India to the podium at the Asiad next year, too. “If given the opportunity, I can rally a team and take the side to the final,” he said.
Who ends up with the gig is for all to wait and see.