Young Turks take Pro Kabaddi League by storm

With the Kabaddi World Cup set to be held next year, the emergence of fresh talent serves as a massive boost.

The Bengal Warriors team celebrates with the trophy after winning season seven of the Pro Kabaddi League.

Rib-crunching tackles, blink-and-you-miss-it raids and rubber-band like flexibility — these are just some of the skills needed to be a top kabaddi player. And with the advent of the Pro Kabaddi League, the sport has become even more demanding.

Since the introduction of the mat and shoes in 2007, the sport has taken a new turn. Like E. P. Rao, widely known as the father of Indian kabaddi, says, “The scoreline back in the day used to be 1-0 or 2-0 and people used to think, ‘Wow, what a tough game it was!’ But in reality, it was because neither team attempted to score a point. The game was won off one raid or two.”

The game has become quicker, tougher and more physically challenging. Mere technical expertise doesn’t cut it, the players are under constant pressure to adapt and re-brand their game. And season seven of the PKL saw just that. While veterans such as Ajay Thakur, Rishank Devadiga, Nitin Tomar, Manjeet Chhillar and Rahul Chaudhari struggled to get going, a legion of young Turks took the league by storm.

Bengal Warriors’ Mohammed Esmaeil Nabibakhsh was the star of the final as he led his side to its maiden title.

 

Naveen Kumar and Nitesh Kumar, who made their debuts last season, and Sumit — all products of PKL’s Future Kabaddi Heroes programme which seeks to unearth the next big stars of Indian kabaddi — caught the eye.

Naveen, 19, re-wrote history as he picked up 22 Super 10s, which meant he scored 10 points or more in 22 matches. What made that number sweeter was that 21 of those Super 10s were in consecutive games. To put his remarkable season in perspective — he bagged 301 raid points this season, which was more than the combined tally of Rahul Chaudhari and Deepak Niwas Hooda.

The mercurial raider from Haryana played a pivotal role in guiding Dabang Delhi to its first title clash and became one of the youngest to feature in a PKL final. And, true to his reputation as Mr. Consistent, he delivered in the final by pocketing a stirring 18 points, but it just wasn’t enough on the day. The Dabang Delhi defence collapsed and Bengal Warriors took home the title. But for Naveen, who won the Most Valuable Player (MVP) award for his stellar campaign, this was the way of announcing his arrival.

Nitesh made history last year by becoming the first defender in PKL to score 100 tackle points and was duly rewarded this time as UP Yoddha named him as its captain. Leading a side filled with stars such as Rishank, Monu Goyat and Shrikant Jadhav could have proved to be a daunting task, but Nitesh made it look easy.

Calling the shots from the right cover position, he not only ensured his side stayed in control but also had a spectacular campaign as he racked up 75 tackle points, the third-highest in the league, to power UP Yoddha to its third-straight playoffs berth.

He received immense support from Sumit in the left corner. Young Sumit finished as the second-best defender with 77 tackle points to his name. He also picked up the joint-most number of High 5s (7) and the second-most number of successful tackles at 75.

With the Kabaddi World Cup to be held next year, the emergence of such talent serves as a massive boost. Especially since the heartbreaking loss at the 2018 Asian Games to Iran, which ended India’s 28-year domination of the sport. The Asian Games team did not feature any of these exciting young talents and it prompts the question — will they be in the mix this time around?

Dabang Delhi’s Naveen Kumar (dark blue jersey) re-wrote history as he picked up 22 Super 10s in the tournament. He was rightly named the Most Valuable Player.

 

From the 12-member squad that went to Jakarta and Palembang, only two — Pardeep Narwal and Deepak Niwas Hooda — managed over 100 points this season. The other 10 had an average outing, while some were disappointing.

With the arrival of the young stars, India can feature a whole new squad for the next World Cup. A roster of young players, hungry to make their national debut, means Indian kabaddi’s future is in good hands. The league’s best raider, Pawan Kumar Sehrwat has been impressive across the last two seasons. Ace raider Pardeep Narwal has often been forced to play second-fiddle to senior players. Coming to the defence, it has been manned by the likes of Mohit Chhillar and Girish Ernak, both of whom failed to impress this season.

With the presence of defenders such as Nitesh, Sandeep Kumar Dhull and Baldev Singh, all yearning for a spot in the national team, this fresh blood could be a new beginning for Indian kabaddi.