Dabang Delhi’s march to the Pro Kabaddi League title was one of grit, redemption and of unwavering faith the coach had in his men. The side that finished runner-up last season went into the player auction with a strategy that simply read: sign only defenders aged above 30 years. When the final team list was made, the defence looked like this — Jeeva Kumar (40), long-stay captain Joginder Narwal (39), Manjeet Chhillar (34) and Sandeep Narwal (28). The average age of that defence was 35.2 years.

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Coach Krishan Kumar Hooda also brought on the veteran raider and former India captain Ajay Thakur (35). It was almost like Dabang Delhi was the Chennai Super Kings of the Pro Kabaddi League: it was assembling a Dad’s Army of its own. In fact, Joginder’s son Vinay Kumar Narwal made his debut this season and they became the first father-son duo to play together in the League.

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Mission accomplished: Delhi Dabang coach Krishan Hooda proved his naysayers wrong by winning the PKL title with a team full of old warhorses.

 

The auction strategy seemed puzzling. Manjeet and Ajay both had a poor season with Tamil Thalaivas, while Jeeva and Joginder were not as lethal as they were a few years ago.

Jeeva and Manjeet, both operating on the right side of the mat, managed a paltry five points and just five successful tackles in the opening three matches. The figures were incredibly low, but the team was coasting to successive wins thanks to the raiding brilliance of Naveen Kumar and Vijay Malik. Dabang Delhi’s disjointed defence never got the blame because the raiders rescued them and the team topped the table after remaining undefeated in the first seven games.

When Sportstar spoke to coach Hooda back in December, he insisted with conviction that his senior players would come good. “The most common question I have been asked so far is how will I control and manage a team with so many senior players. I assure you that they will perform. It’s my duty to bring them together and bring the best out of them. We have 22 games and they will do well,” he said.

He acknowledged that his defence was misfiring. “I agree some players can have a bad game, but we will back them to improve. Jeeva stays in the room next to mine. I saw him walking around the lobby at 4 am today. I asked him what was wrong and he said he was upset with how he played in the last game. The players know they need to perform and they will.”

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At the time it seemed like coach Hooda’s unwavering faith in his defence was an obligation. But the defence faced a baptism of fire as Naveen suffered a knee injury that would rule him out for nearly a month. Vijay and youngster Ashu Malik took over the raiding duties, but the spotlight was firmly on the erratic defence. Dabang Delhi lost four of its next six matches, including a 22-61 mauling inflicted by Bengaluru Bulls. The playoffs seemed a distant hope for Dabang Delhi, which was toothless without Naveen.

The defence found its footing in the subsequent games even as the side’s fortunes swung like a pendulum — a win followed by a loss or tie the next day. But it was enough to bag the second spot on the table and earn a spot in the semifinal. And as luck would have it, Naveen was back on the mat.

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Raider par excellence: Naveen Kumar (with arms raised) proved to be Delhi Dabang’s most valuable player. He scored 28 successive Super 10s before an injury forced him out for nearly a month. He played a pivotal role in the semifinal and the final to help his side win the title.

 

The 22-year-old, who had scored 28 successive Super 10s before his injury, returned to the mat with heavy taping on his knee but went about his business of picking up points for fun. He scored 14 in the semifinal against Bengaluru Bulls and 13 points in the final to deny Patna Pirates a record fourth title.

Hooda lavished praise on Naveen. “I cannot believe how well Naveen played in the final. To come back from the injury and play with such control and to not let the pain affect him…he does his duty to perfection. He looks at team situation, what is best for the team and is a very thinking player, which is a rare characteristic to have at such a young age. Naveen is among the best raiders in the country.”

But what pleased Hooda more was the fact that he proved his naysayers wrong. “I faced so many questions and concerns over how I will handle this team with so many senior players. The result is there to see. It’s the same team that is now the champion,” he said.

For the record, Dabang Delhi conceded 801 points (fourth highest) in the season and managed just 200 tackle points (11th out of 12 teams). Even Telugu Titans, which finished at the bottom of the table and won just one game had more tackle points (207).

A season like no other

While the usual suspects in Naveen and Pawan Sehrawat excelled, their compatriots who were tagged as superstars failed to shine. Rahul Showman Chaudhari was left to warm the bench at Puneri Paltan, while Ajay Iceman Thakur did not play one full game and left the season mid-way due to an injury. Siddharth Baahubali Desai was ruled out early on due to a wrist injury, while his captain Rohit Kumar was ineffective when he made the mat.

READ: Top five defenders of Pro Kabaddi League Season 8

But that meant a new crop of superstars were born this time around — the future kings of kabaddi. Aslam Inamdar and Mohit Goyat at Puneri Paltan, Sachin Tanwar and Guman Singh at Patna Pirates, Jaideep Dahiya at Haryana Steelers, Sagar Rathee at Tamil Thalaivas, Arjun Deshwal at Jaipur Pink Panthers, and Surender Gill at UP Yoddha. The PKL season has helped unearth these youngsters and expand India’s talent pool ahead of the Asian Games. The nation managed only the bronze in 2018, a low after winning the gold on seven successive occasions.

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Potent play: Mohammadreza Shadloui Chiyaneh (extreme right) took the league by storm. The Iranian clinched 10 High-5s — the most any player has managed in eight editions.

 

Shadloui, the ever-smiling Pirate

India’s biggest challenge at the Asian Games will come from Iran and the player to look out for will be Mohammadreza Shadloui Chiyaneh. The little-known 21-year-old, who was roped in by Patna Pirates for Rs. 31 lakh, took the league by storm. The left corner, a position dominated by Fazel Atrachali in the Iran side, clinched 10 High-5s — the most any player has managed in eight editions. He’s adept at playing in both corners and can double up as a raider too. He had raiders wriggling to get out of his iron-clad ankle holds and was the signing of the season.

Back to the drawing board

With the next season of PKL slated towards the end of 2022, the teams have plenty of time to visit the drawing board. The likes of Telugu Titans, Tamil Thalaivas and season seven champion Bengal Warriors will need some change in strategy and approach if they are to compete for a spot in the coveted top-six. Haryana Steelers had an average season and narrowly missed out on a playoff spot but former champions U Mumba and Jaipur Pink Panthers struggled for momentum and will need an overhaul.