Move over cricket, it’s kabaddi time! After close to two months of cricket at the World Cup in England, India’s attention will now shift to the mat-laden air-conditioned indoor arenas as the seventh edition of the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL) gets underway on July 20.
Labelled as the toughest season yet owing to a new format, a bunch of intriguing signings during the auctions, the influx of new coaches and a prime-time television slot of 7:30 pm, the upcoming campaign promises to be supremely interesting.
Talk about the auctions and the first and most obvious name you have to talk about is Siddharth Desai. The muscular raider — who became the first rookie to pocket 200 points in a debut season — was snapped up by Telugu Titans for a break-the-bank figure of Rs. 1.45 crore and will be raring to go after recovering from a shoulder injury. Telugu Titans will, in fact, have a dream start as the league begins at home in Hyderabad, with the team taking on former champion U Mumba in the opener.
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Defending champion Bengaluru Bulls cleverly retained its two key men from last season, captain Rohit Kumar and the mesmerising Pawan Kumar Sehrawat. The two were so prolific last season that they racked up a combined total of 433 raid points, which was 79 percent of the team’s entire raid points. That figure tells you just how crucial these two men are for the Bulls. The Randhir Singh-coached side also held on to ace defender Mahender Singh, who was the league’s sixth-best defender last season. Having clung on to its core members, Bengaluru Bulls looks well set to become the only the second team in PKL history to defend its title.
The first team to successfully defend its title was Patna Pirates, which went on a rampage to cruise to a three-peat between season 3 and 5. However, it failed to reach the playoffs for the first time in six seasons last year and will be eager to make amends. Led by the Dubki King Pardeep Narwal, who has the distinction of being the league’s most successful raider, Patna will gun for a record fourth title this time around.
Patna’s last game of the season ended in a loss to Gujarat FortuneGiants, which went on to finish runner-up for the second time running. Gujarat has been the most consistent team since its inception two years ago and the credit largely goes to coach Manpreet Singh’s terrific man-management skills. Devoid of any of the big names in Indian kabaddi, the little-fancied side produced upsets aplenty to make two finals in a row but has not got its hands on the coveted crown. Manpreet, who as a player had guided Patna to its first title in season 3, will hope the third time is a charm.
One team that looks very promising this year is Tamil Thalaivas. After two consecutive disappointing bottom-placed finishes, a new-look Thalaivas looks in much better shape this year. The side has roped in Rahul ‘Raid Machine’ Chaudhari, a sure-shot game-changer, to address its raiding woes. Captain and national team skipper Ajay Thakur has been the side’s leading force thus far, but Rahul’s inclusion will ease the pressure on him. With Manjeet Chhillar and Ran Singh expected to contribute to the raiding and defence alike, Tamil Thalaivas looks like a serious contender this edition.
UP Yoddha entered PKL along with Thalaivas in season 5, but has enjoyed a far more remarkable run. Having made to the playoffs over the last two seasons, the side put up a scintillating show last year but lost in the Eliminator, just one game short of the final. With the arrival of star raider Monu Goyat and the presence of fellow heavyweights such as Rishank Devadiga and Shrikanth Jadhav, UP Yoddha appears a formidable unit.
Puneri Paltan decided to release its entire roster going into the auction, but used its Final Bid Match card to ace raider Nitin Tomar and the burly defender Girish Ernak. With the arrival of seasoned campaigners in Manjeet and Surjeet Singh, former star Anup Kumar will hope he can taste success in his first season as coach. His compatriot, Rakesh Kumar, will also kickstart his coaching career as he takes charge of Haryana Steelers.
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Bengal Warriors will eye a change in fortunes after bringing coach BC Ramesh on board. He was an integral part of the title-winning Bengaluru Bulls camp last season. Warriors also spent big money to sign Iranian all-rounder Mohammad Esmail Nabibakhsh for Rs 77 lakhs, making him this season’s most expensive foreign buy. Nabibakhsh will be making his PKL debut and will be a key component to his team’s success this season. Speaking of Iranian stars, Fazel Atrachali will once again be U Mumba’s trump card. The veteran defender has remained one of the most consistent performers in the league and is among the top-five on the most tackle points scored list, and will look to lead his side to a second title.
Meanwhile, Jaipur Pink Panthers will continue to chase the title it bagged in the inaugural edition. The Abhishek Bachchan-owned team made it to a final and a playoff between season 2 and 4, but to no avail. The side finished a lowly fifth in Zone A over the last two years and will eye a turnaround under national team coach Srinivas Reddy, who joined the side last year.
Defensive superpower Dabang Delhi comes off its most successful campaign. With the likes of Meraj Sheykh, Nitesh Kumar, Ravinder Pahal and Chandran Ranjit in its ranks, it enters the tournament as the dark horse.
Doing away with the old format that split the 12 teams into two zones, this season will see a double round robin format implemented, thereby ensuring that each team plays every other team twice. The new structure means all teams would have played an equal number of games at the halfway mark, making the race for the six playoff spots all the more interesting. Furthermore, keeping in mind player recovery and fatigue management, each team will only play four matches in its home leg, giving the players more time to recover and strategise.
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