At some point during the ongoing edition of the Pro Kabaddi League, Puneri Paltan’s Iranian mainstays Fazel Atrachali and Mohammad Nabibakhsh sat down for a roommates interview. One likes the colour black, the other prefers white. One’s room is as chaotic as his mind while the other likes to keep everything organised. But beyond these tiny differences, a number of things bind these two together - years playing together for Iran, compatriots in a team filled with Indians, and an opportunity to work as one mind and two bodies for one of the most layered setups in the Indian Kabaddi ecosystem.
Puneri Paltan roped in Fazel (INR 1.38 CR) and Nabibakhsh (INR 87L) for a combined sum of INR 2.25 CR, adding a potent top tier to a well-structured youth system. Through their Yuva Paltan programme, the franchise has unearthed a number of talents who have taken the league by storm - from Pankaj Mohite and Aslam Inamdar to now Akash Shinde. With its bases covered in terms of youngsters who brought in pace and fearlessness in the team, Pune went into the auction primarily looking for a leader. In Fazel and Nabi, it got two.
Due to the political and social unrest in Iran, the kabaddi players from the country arrived for the league a week after it began. In the two games, the Paltan played without the duo, they showed pace and fight but lacked composure and quick thinking in crunch situations. After the Iranians joined the gang, it took a game or two for the new setup to warm itself up, but ultimately finished with the Paltan in second place in the league standings.
“Fazel and I talk to the team a lot during training time on how to perfect a move and how to use particular skills in particular situations. I focus on the raiders while Fazel focuses on the defenders,” Nabibakhsh tells Sportstar.
Due to the sheer bench strength the Paltan have, Nabibakhsh has not always started in every game. However, one can’t keep the man out of action. While coach B.C Ramesh gathers his players in a huddle and discusses strategies during the halftime mark or during the timeouts, Nabibakhsh and Fazel are having their own conversation in Farsi with Nabi animated through it all, showing Fazel mat positions or re-enacting body holds.
Fazel, who is sitting beside Nabibakhsh during the interaction, chimes in.
“On social media and the pressers, people keep saying, ‘this player has only one point, why is he in the team’ about Nabi. Either they don’t watch the match fully, or don’t understand kabaddi. His contribution cannot be quantified in points. But for the sake of everyone seeing his value, I am glad he scored eight points in a game in the last week of league matches.”
Fazel has 51 tackle points to his name and has been his dominant best when Nabibakhsh has been on the mat to aid his blocks and dashes.
“What does a corner defender need?” Fazel asks.
“The best second man. Indian raiders - they are star raiders. They don’t help in defense. See Naveen (Kumar), Arjun (Deshwal), and Maninder (Singh). They are the main raiders and don’t contribute in defense. So all defenders struggle with finding good second men because you’re invariably paired with a raider to help you. I think Nabibakhsh is the best second man in PKL because he is happy to adapt to your needs. He can do ankle holds, dives, and thigh holds; he’s always ready to support you and that is the best thing for me, firstly. I can’t say that about anyone else in my time in PKL,” the Paltan skipper adds.
TRANSITION FROM BENGAL TO PUNE
Another person who understands what Nabibakhsh truly brings to the table is coach Ramesh, who has managed him in Bengal Warriors too. In season 7, the Warriors had a dominant season led by Maninder Singh. However, the side faced its biggest obstacle when Mani suffered an injury ahead of the playoffs. Captaincy responsibilities went to Nabibakhsh who rallied his foot soldiers and eventually won Bengal its maiden trophy.
It’s not for nothing then that almost every Paltan team member will agree that Nabi is coach Ramesh’s favourite.
“I became his favourite after winning that title only,” Nabi says sheepishly.
Despite having the same coach, life in the Pune and Bengal setup are as different as chalk and cheese, the Iranian points out.
“In Bengal, the team was filled with a lot of experienced players. In Pune, there are so many youngsters. I have made so many friends here in this squad. But in Bengal, we were free. I could sometimes put in 15-20 raids. But in Pune, the strategy is very controlled, sometime I get only one raid, sometimes I don’t get to raid at all,” the all-rounder adds.
For someone who is often desperate to raid, Nabibakhsh’s talents this season have shone more in defense.
One of the standout moments of this season was when Nabibakhsh along with Mohit Goyat pulled off an incredible super tackle on U Mumba’s Guman Singh earlier in the season. Guman, a raider with pace and strength, got caught in Goyat’s ankle hold. Nabibakhsh came in for support and the duo pulled Guman back deeper into the Paltan half. Goyat’s hold soon slipped but Nabibakhsh tightened his grip almost locking Guman’s leg against his chest. After what felt like the longest 15 seconds, Guman gave up.
This is hardly surprising given Nabibakhsh is a wrestler first.
“My wrestling coach, Ebad Daliri, was a player in the Iran national kabaddi team and he told me to give kabaddi a shot. I’ve been a kabaddi player now for 15 years. My first game for the national team was here in India, in the World Cup in Ahmedabad. I then played the Asian Championships, the Asian Games and then Pro Kabaddi,” he remembers.
“I still go for wrestling twice a week when I am in Iran. But I like Kabaddi better. In wrestling, I am stepping into the mat alone, in kabaddi I have six people with me. I do like raiding better but I feel happier if I get a high five (when a defender gets five points or more),” Nabibakhsh adds.
THE SEARCH FOR AN INDIAN WIFE
Despite the success he has found here in India, Nabibakhsh’s kabaddi exploits aren’t celebrated so much back home in his family.
“In fact, my family does not like kabaddi. My father keeps asking why I am going to India for kabaddi. They say they miss me for three months and so he keeps saying don’t go. They don’t keep track of my kabaddi stuff too much,” Nabi says.
“Other families like their kids to grow in sports and become champion. My family is happy if I have a job and have a quiet life. They wanted me to have a government job,” he adds.
When asked if he’s looking to marry, a very swift and vehement no comes in response. This is despite a joking mention of Nabibaksh looking for an Indian wife.
“I want to be single forever,” he chuckles.
Fazel then interrupts to reveal that Nabibakhsh’s growing legion of fans often professes their love for him in his Instagram DMs.
“Daily he has so many messages from female fans who say they love him. What’s important is to see who he loves,” the skipper adds.
However, this search will have to wait as the Paltan enter the last leg of their bid for a maiden Pro Kabaddi League title. Fazel will look to his most trusted second man, whether on the mat or on the bench, to be by his side and pull off his heroics once more.