U Mumba CEO Suhail Chandhok: Time for kabaddi to follow cricket with specialised coaches, form over fame in auction strategy

Sportstar caught up with new U Mumba CEO Suhail Chandhok on his strategy ahead of the auctions for the tenth edition of the Pro Kabaddi League, his plans for the franchise and the changing trends in professional kabaddi.

Published : Oct 09, 2023 10:32 IST , CHENNAI - 8 MINS READ

From left to right: Jeeva Kumar, Gholamreza Mazandarani, Suhail Chandhok and KC Suthar.
From left to right: Jeeva Kumar, Gholamreza Mazandarani, Suhail Chandhok and KC Suthar. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

From left to right: Jeeva Kumar, Gholamreza Mazandarani, Suhail Chandhok and KC Suthar. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

‘U Mumba, finalist in the inaugural Pro Kabaddi League (PKL) season and subsequent champion, is at an interesting place in its journey as a franchise. Ahead of the auction for the 10th season of PKL, the franchise has a new face at the helm - CEO Suhail Chandok. The team has also revamped its coaching contingent with an eye on stabilising the team and putting longstanding frameworks in place.

Sportstar caught up with Chandhok about the team’s auction strategy, long-term plans and more.

Q. What was the idea behind retaining the core - Surinder Singh, Rinku, Jai Bhagwan, Heiderali Ekrami and Shivam?

When it comes to Surinder and Rinku, retaining them was an obvious call. I believe Surinder is one of the most evolved leaders in India. Many initially questioned his appointment as captain, but his on-court composure and leadership qualities have proven his worth. It has even enhanced his performance.

Rinku, in particular, is among the top right corners in the country, and I would place him in the same league as Nitesh Kumar, a member of India’s gold-medal-winning Asian Games team. Heiderali is a young and exciting talent. We’ve seen glimpses of brilliance from him, as well as from players like Jai Bhagwan. When you notice sparks of potential, it’s a sign that there’s something valuable to nurture.

We aim to build a youthful team for the future. While these players are young in terms of age, they gain experience with each passing season. Surinder and Rinku, in particular, have evolved into genuine leaders who can guide the team effectively. Retaining the core players was intentional, as it means we only need to fill in the missing pieces of the puzzle with individuals who will complement them. We have the confidence that our core remains intact and will continue to lead the team forward.

Q. It seems like this auction may not be as extensive as expected. Initially, there were nearly 700 players in the pool, but now teams already have around 13 to 14 players on average. What’s your perspective on this auction?

I believe this auction remains extremely significant, not primarily in terms of quantity but quality. The final pieces of the puzzle can make or break a team. While it may not appear that a large number of players are needed, it’s the finer details that matter in assembling a complete team. If you don’t get these details right, a team can quickly lose its momentum. Some teams are tasked with building an entire squad, which is no easy feat. Even with a substantial budget, it’s a challenge. This is why we emphasize retaining our core players—it’s tough to start from scratch when building a team.

Q. Over the years, teams have done a lot of chopping and changing at every auction. But this time, most teams seemed to have the same core (more or less). What has caused this trend?

The observation that stands out to me is the evolving maturity of teams in the sport. We’ve shifted our focus from seeking big names to prioritizing current form over reputation.

Take Puneri Paltan, for example. They’ve assembled a youthful lineup featuring talents like Aslam Inamdar, Mohit Goyat, Aditya Shinde, and Akash Shinde. The emphasis is now on investing in the younger generation rather than pursuing established stars like Rahul Chaudhari or Deepak Niwas Hooda. This strategic shift sets them up for the long-term, just as we’ve done with our team. We have valuable assets like Jai, Heiderali, Rinku, Surinder, Pranay Rane, Shivam, and more, allowing us to plan for the future. These players are not only young but also dedicated to maintaining their fitness year-round. Many of the emerging talents, as mentioned earlier, participate in the Yuva Series to stay in peak condition before returning to the PKL.

There’s undoubtedly a noticeable inclination towards younger professionals who are in peak form, as opposed to solely relying on a player’s past reputation. The player scouting process has improved significantly, and there are ample opportunities to showcase talent. Teams are confident in their scouting abilities and trust their processes to discover hidden gems, even if it means not selecting a well-known player. In this era of social media, fan reactions can be quite intense when a prominent name is not chosen, but teams have grown more confident in their ability to unearth exceptional talents through diligent scouting.

Q. Tell us a little bit about your new coaching contingent with Iran’s Gholamreza Mazandarani as head coach and KC Suthar and Jeeva Kumar as assistant coaches.

Regarding our scouting and coaching team, we have KC Suthar, Jeeva Kumar, and Gholamreza Mahmoud Mazandarani. Each of them brings their experience to the table. Gholamreza’s conduct at the Asian Games final showed his class and composure, which we greatly appreciate. His calm demeanour reflects the kind of team he leads, where players maintain their composure even in challenging situations. This earned him immense respect. 

Gholamreza’s approach is merit-based, without bias towards any particular region. In the case of KC Suthar, you’ve got someone who has worked with Iran and India and I thought that was a perfect marriage of a coach who knows the Indian junior system. He’s worked at SAI (Sports Authority of India) for a long time, works very well with young players, develops young players beautifully and at the same time will get on very well with Gholamreza. They’ve spent a lot of time together already. They share immense respect for each other and I think we couldn’t have found a better jodi as our two coaches. 

As a defensive coach, there’s a man who bleeds U Mumba - Jeeva Kumar. He is the best left-cover India ever had. He brings his passion for U Mumba to his coaching role. All three coaches are team players with no egos, and they respect each other’s contributions. Our goal is to build a long-term future for the team and players, and having coaches and management aligned is crucial.

Furthermore, we believe Kabaddi should follow cricket’s example and have specialized coaches, like a defensive coach. Jeeva Kumar, with his extensive experience, is a valuable asset in this regard, especially after his time with the U Yoda setup.

Q. What does U Mumba lack, according to you, and what gaps would you as a stakeholder want to fill in as the new CEO of the franchise? 

I believe the franchise is already strong and well-regarded in terms of brand recognition, reach, and presence in the kabaddi world. However, my goal is to infuse a stronger sense of community within the team. I want the franchise to embody the spirit of Mumbai, known for its grit, tenacity, and aspirations as a city of dreams. I want every player to aspire to be part of U Mumba, viewing it as the team of their dreams. This sense of camaraderie and unity was evident in the earlier seasons, and I aim to rebuild it. We have successfully fostered this culture in our chess and table tennis teams, and I intend to bring it to this team. 

Q. Without revealing all of your cards for the auction tomorrow, could you tell us about your auction strategy? What are you looking for, or would you like to run behind any specific name? 

Well, we’re taking a comprehensive approach. At this stage, I can affirm that we’re examining all options. I’ll be able to provide more specific details after the auction, but I can say that we have our eyes on several promising young talents. You can expect a few surprises from us at the auction table. People may or may not like them. I think you know, we’re not going to go for the popular votes. 

We will go after everyone, ranging from the top tier to the bottom. When I mentioned ‘not going for the popular votes’, I meant that we won’t solely focus on the most hyped young players. We have confidence in our scouting process, and our goal is to strike a balance between experienced players and promising youth.

Q. A word on your four new singings through the Yuva Kabaddi program - Sombir Goswami, Mukilan Shanmugam, Gokulakannan M, and Bittu Banwala?

Bittu, Mukilan, and Gokulakannan are all graduates of the Yuva Kabaddi Series, and we’ve closely followed their progress. Mukilan and Gokulakannan, hailing from Tamil Nadu, form an excellent cover combination. They complement each other well and display remarkable maturity for their age. Gokulakannan, in particular, exhibits leadership qualities at a very young age, while Mukilan is an exciting talent known for his speed and fearlessness, especially in the left-cover position.

Sombir, in the left corner position, stands out as one of the most promising talents in the country. His performance at the Khelo India games showcased just a glimpse of his potential, and we anticipate even greater contributions from him. Bittu Banwala, as the right corner, is dynamic, fearless, and possesses great strength.

When building a team, we always look for effective combinations, and having a duo like Bittu and Sombir, both highly fit and eager to perform, is promising.

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