New-look teams, a multi-city itinerary, and the return of fans will enliven the ninth season of the Pro Kabaddi League. The grand opening weekend, in Bengaluru, features a triple-header-filled roster that will give all 12 teams a chance to get some time on the mat.
AN AUCTION OF EXTREMES
The auction ahead of season nine saw some major shifts in team composition. Pawan Sehrawat, a long-time Bengaluru Bulls frontman, has moved to Tamil Thalaivas, while ace Iranian defender Fazel Atrachali has moved from to Puneri Paltan from U Mumba. At Paltan, Atrachali will team up with compatriot Mohammad Esmail Nabibakhsh, who had helped Bengal Warriors to the title in the seventh season.
Naveen Kumar remains the trump card for defending champion Dabang Delhi – he was retained by the franchise – while several others, including such star raiders as Siddharth Desai and Pardeep Narwal, found themselves in the auction pool.
Narwal, who has three PKL titles to his name (with Patna Pirates) and numerous raiding records, found his value depreciating in the auction. After being picked for the previous top tag of ₹1.65 crore for UP Yoddhas, Narwal returned to the same franchise via a Final Bid Match option for a reduced price of ₹90 lakh.
Desai suffered a steeper drop. Telugu Titans had shelled out ₹1.45 crore and ₹1.3 crore on the raider in successive auctions, but frequent and long injury layoffs have now dimmed the sheen of the Bahubali, as his moniker in the league goes. Desai was purchased for a mere ₹20 lakh this time by the Titans.
Rahul Chaudhari, effectively in his sunset years in the PKL after struggling to keep up with younger legs in the league, found taker in Jaipur Pink Panthers. But after two underwhelming seasons, a price of ₹10 lakh is all he could command in the auction. Chaudhari, called the ‘Showman’ for his flamboyance on the mat, guided Uttar Pradesh to gold in the National Games and will want to channel that momentum in the league too.
Iranian players Atrachali, Nabibakhsh and now Mohammadreza Chiyaneh (89 tackle points in 24 matches) have carved a niche for themselves in the PKL. Compatriot Amir Hossein Bastami will hope to join this star-studded list after having garnered interest from multiple franchises during the auction.
Bastami was picked up by Haryana Steelers for ₹65.10 lakh.
FOCUS ON TEAMWORK
Their sheer brilliance on the mat and consistency in logging points separates the likes of Sehrawat (304 raid points in 24 matches in PKL 8), who broke the ₹2 crore barrier in the auction to become the all-time most expensive pick, and Naveen ( from the rest.
However, franchises have tried to move away from star-centred strategies over the last two seasons. The focus has been on building multiple lines of attack and defence to keep the pace and scores of the game up. Paltan, whose young core developed under veteran player-turned-coach Anup Kumar, stands out for its focus on local players and the pairing of Atrachali and Nabibakhsh, a handy raider in crunch situations. Haryana is another franchise which, after letting Vikash Kandola move to Bengaluru Bulls, finds itself with a young squad with much to prove. Manpreet Dahiya, formerly with the Thalaivas, will rally the attack for the Steelers but it’s the defensive team led by Jaideep Dahiya and Joginder Narwal that will be crucial to the side’s fortunes. Bastami will hope to do a Chiyaneh for the Steelers.
The Thalaivas have a solid ace in Sehrawat but must resist the temptation to overly rely on the Hi-Flier. A young team stands behind Sehrawat and it has a tough task on its hands to ably support the league’s top raider of the last few editions.
Gujarat Giants has let go of underperforming defensive chain Sunil Kumar and Parvesh Bhainswal. New coach Ram Meher Singh — the league’s most successful gaffer — has a template Gujarat side at his disposal: strong in defence, lots to prove in attack. Going from clean slate to championship match will be an attractive challenge for him.
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Bengal Warriors, which will be missing Nabibakhsh, will hope Maninder Singh finds support in Deepak Niwas Hooda, who has at best been patchy with contributions over the last two seasons. UP Yoddha has Narwal but has learnt that bagging one of the best players in the league doesn’t guarantee the best finish. The Dubki King’s Dubki is no longer the potent weapon it once was, and a fitter and more agile Narwal would have been more handy to this side. Yet, there is solidity to Yoddha’s defence and it will be exciting to see Nitin Tomar backing up Narwal, provided Tomar manages to stay fit.
Jaipur has wanted a turn in fortunes for a long time now. Arjun Deshwal’s pairing with V. Ajith Kumar promises to be exciting. Chaudhari needs to step up and allow the side the benefit of his experience. If he strikes form, it will be a bonus for Jaipur.
During the eighth season of the PKL, making it to the Asian Games was a primary consideration for many of the players. The league was effectively an audition for a spot in the Indian national team going to China. With the postponement of the Asiad due to the pandemic, players may consider PKL 9 an audition too.
Staying injury-free, therefore, will be crucial for players but a difficult task considering the hectic schedule of the PKL. The endurance of the league’s ageing warhorses will be tested yet again but it will also be an opportunity for fresh talent to knock on the doors of the Indian side. The incoming crop of New Young Players, a concept that has given PKL talents like Naveen Kumar and Sachin Tanwar, will be a bunch to follow closely.