Mumbai: It’s a season of transition as the seventh season of the Pro Kabaddi League takes centerstage on Saturday. And nobody would agree with it more than former players, Anup Kumar and Rakesh Kumar, who have been stars in their own right in the past.
The duo was a part of the Indian sides that saw success at the Asian Games and the World Cup, and have been seasoned campaigners in the league over the years, with Anup even winning the title with U Mumba in 2015. This time around though, these two will be on the sidelines, as they make their debut as coaches this season.
It took little time for Anup, the Most Valuable Player (MVP) in Season 1, to take over the reins of Puneri Paltan, when the opportunity arose. For Rakesh, who had been a part of the commentary team in the past, it was a case of going back to what he does best. He will now look to steady the ship at Haryana Steelers, who’ve had a rather dismal campaign after finishing at the bottom of Zone A last year.
“My place has always been on the mat, so when the call came, I didn’t have any second thoughts. Of course, there’s a big difference when you have to lead the entire team and over the last month, the pre-season has had a very different meaning for me,” Rakesh says.
For a season opener, the PKL 7 presents one of the most intriguing prospects. The undisputed star of last season, Siddharth Desai—the most expensive player at this year’s auction after he was bought by Telugu Titans for a whopping Rs 1.45 crore—will take on his former team, U Mumba. He comes with the reputation of being the first rookie to cross 200 points in his debut season.
The pressure though will be on defending champions, Bengaluru Bulls, having won their first title last season through the exploits of MVP Pawan Kumar Sehrawat and his raiding partner and skipper Rohit Kumar.
“My partnership with Pawan has been great, but even if the two of us fail, the defence has done its job. I think the pressure will be on the other teams, since we go in with a lot of confidence as champions,” Rohit says.
The other big names to look out for include Puneri Paltan’s Nitin Tomar, Tamil Thalaiva’s Rahul Chaudhari and the injury-prone Monu Goyat, last year’s most expensive signing, who will turn out for U.P. Yoddha this year. Among the foreigners, Korean Jang Kun Lee will make his experience of six seasons count for Patna Pirates, while debutant and the most expensive import this season, Mohammad Nabibakhsh of Iran will bring in the X-factor for Bengal Warriors.
The league saw a drop in its viewership last year, but an early start to the season this year and prime time telecast should change all that. Besides, the zonal structure has been replaced by a round robin format, where each team will play the other twice in bid for the six playoff spots on offer, making it a more competitive tournament this time around.
Last season’s runners-up, Gujarat Fortunegiants too will look to better their prospects after finishing second best in two consecutive seasons. At the heart of their campaign has been the enterprise of coach Manpreet Singh, who had won the league with Patna Pirates in 2016 and has made the most of the resources on hand since taking on the coach’s role.
“When we train, I look to polish the youngsters and then play them in a match. Even if they don’t perform well, I give them another shot to prove their worth. When Sachin Tendulkar opened the innings, he was out early. What if he had been dropped then?” Manpreet says.
“We have no pressure, the more challenges I have, the more I enjoy it. This is my formula for life – to take the pressure head on. Wins and losses will happen but if you keep your mind, it will all pan out well over three months,” he adds.
HOW THE TEAMS STACK UP
After finishing runners-up in Season 2, the Bulls finally landed the big prize last year after beating Gujarat Fortunegiants in the final. Pawan Kumar Sehrawat did the star turn with the most raid points at 271, which included 22 in the final, and rightly earned him the Most Valuable Player (MVP) award. Sehrawat and skipper Rohit Kumar were instrumental in landing 79% of the raid points for the Bulls, who’ve retained their core team for this season.
Who’s staying: Rohit Kumar (Captain), Mahender Singh, Pawan Kumar Sehrawat, Ashish Sangwan, Amit Sheoran, Sumit Singh, Ankit, Ajay, Raju Lal Chaudhary, Sandeep
Look out for:
Pawan Kumar Sehrawat – He was last year’s MVP with the most raid points at 271.
Rohit Kumar – He is the skipper for the Bulls with 162 raid points last season.
Mahender Singh – He has scored 63 tackle points with six High 5s last season
The Steelers’ fortunes were dealt a severe blow when they lost their skipper Surender Nada to an injury in the very first match of last season. From there on, it was all downhill for them, finishing at the bottom of Zone A. The trio of Vikas Kandola, Monu Goyat and Naveen still scored the most points by a raiding trio. But with Kandola and Goyat – the most expensive signing in last year’s auction – released, it will be left to see how they deal with their absence.
Who’s staying: Vikas Kandola, Kuldeep Singh, Naveen, Sunil, Vikram Kandola, Parveen, Arun Kumar HN
Look out for:
Prashanth Kumar Rai – He scored more bonus than any other raider last season.
Dharmaraj Cheralathan – He is the captain this season and an experienced campaigner in the defence.
Ravi Kumar – He has scored 40 tackle points last season including 7 Super Tackles.
A lot was expected from the Paltan last year after making three straight playoffs (Season 3-5). But they eventually finished 4th in Zone A and were out of the reckoning. The raiding experience of Nitin Tomar will be key this season, as will be the pairing of Girish Ernak and new signing Surjeet Singh, who had 215 tackle points last season in the cover position. However, the key to their fortunes will be seasoned campaigner, Anup Kumar, who will make his coaching debut with the Paltan this season.
Who’s staying: Nitin Tomar, Girish Maruti Ernak, Amit Kumar, Shubham Shinde, Sandeep
Look out for:
Nitin Tomar – Despite playing just 11 matches, he scored 100 raid points last season.
Girish Ernak – He has the sixth-highest tackle points at 228 over the six seasons.
Surjeet Singh – He scored 54 tackle points last season at an average of 2.3 per game.
The Thalaivas have lacked consistency since making their debut in Season 5, still looking to make their first playoff appearance. Last season, they finished rockbottom in Zone B, despite the presence of seasoned campaigners such as Manjeet Chhillar, Jasvir Singh and Sukesh Hegde. The signing of Rahul Chaudhari spells good news for the Thalaivas, while Mohit Chhillar should form a formidable partnership with Manjeet Chhillar.
Who’s staying: Ajay Thakur (Captain), Manjeet Chhillar, Victor Obiero, Ponparthiban Subramanian, Anand, Hemant Chauhan
Look out for:
Ajay Thakur – He has scored over 200 raid points in Season 5 and 6 and the most for the Thalaivas last season.
Rahul Chaudhari – He is the leading raid point scorer in the history of the league at 825 raid points.
Manjeet Chhillar – He is the only defender to have scored 300 tackle points in the league’s history.
Still to win a playoff tie, the Warriors will look towards their star raider Maninder Singh for some inspiration yet again this season. The signing of K Prapanjan, Sachin and Sukesh Hegde, besides the addition of Iranian all-rounder Mohammad Nabibakhsh should bring some cheer and hope after the departure of their skipper, Surjeet Singh and experienced defender Ran Singh. In the latter’s absence, it will be down to Jeeva Kumar, who is the most experienced defender in the league with 93 matches, to marshall the troops.
Who’s staying: Maninder Singh, Baldev Singh, Ravindra Ramesh Kumawat, Adarsh T, Rakesh Narwal, Vijin Thangadurai
Look out for:
Mohammad Nabibakhsh – The newbie of the league is also the most expensive foreigner signed during the auctions.
Maninder Singh – He is one of the most consistent raiders with the third-highest raid point per match.
Jeeva Kumar – Despite missing six consecutive games, he rose to the occasion when needed, making four Super Tackles of which, three were in the last 10 minutes of the game.
Two finals, two runners-up finishes, the Fortunegiants will be desperate to make amends in their third season in the league. Sunil Kumar and Parvesh Bhainswal had an outstanding run last year where they turned out to be the most successful defensive pairing to score 77 tackle points. The signing of all-rounder Vinod Kumar will add more firepower to the side, but it will be down to the shrewd calculations of coach Manpreet Singh, who brought out the best in debutants such as Abozar Mighani and Sachin Tanwar in Season 5.
Who’s staying: Sachin Tanwar, Parvesh Bhainswal, Sunil Kumar (Captain), Ruturaj Koravi, Rohit Gulia, Amit Kharb, Lalit Chaudhary
Look out for:
Sachin Tanwar – The lead raider since his debut for the Fortunegiants in Season 5, he has scored 15 Super 10s in his two seasons so far.
Parvesh Bhainswal – He had the second-highest tackle points last season at 86 and the most High 5s for the Fortunegiants.
Sunil Kumar – He had the fourth-highest tackle points last season among all defenders.
Two playoff appearances in six seasons but no final appearances sums up Titans’ fortunes in the league. They started the season well last year, but lost their way after a five-game losing streak. All that should change with the signing of Siddharth Desai, the poster boy of the league last year and the most expensive player during the Season 6 auctions at Rs 1.45 crore. All that in a debut season means a lot will be expected from him under the watchful eye of new coach Gholamreza Mazandarani under whom Desai blossomed at U Mumba.
Who’s staying: Vishal Bhardwaj, Abozar Mighani (Captain), Farhad Milaghardan, Krushna Madane, Armaan, Kamal Singh, Ankit Beniwal, Rajnish
Look out for:
Siddharth Desai – The Emerging Player of the Year, he is one of only three raiders to average over 10 points last season.
Vishal Bhardwaj – He managed an average of 3.5 tackle points per match, which was the third best last season.
Abozar Mighani – The Iranian is the new captain of the Titans, with 56 tackle points last season and an average of 2.7 tackle points per game.
With four playoff appearances in six seasons, U Mumba have been one of the most consistent teams in the league, even winning the title in Season 2. They were knocked out in the Eliminator-1 by UP Yoddha last season after a promising show under new captain Fazel Atrachali. However, U Mumba have a task on their hands with the departure of Siddharth Desai and it will be left to see how the likes of Rohit Baliyan, Dong Geon Lee, Abhishek Singh and Athul MS fill in for him.
Who’s staying: Fazel Atrachali, Surender Singh, Rohit Baliyan, Rajaguru Subramanian, Arjun Deshwal, Vinoth Kumar, Abhishek Singh, Gaurav Kumar, Mohit Balyan, Anil
Look out for:
Rohit Baliyan – In the absence of Siddharth Desai, he will shoulder most of the responsibilities being the most experienced raider.
Fazel Atrachali – He was the third-best tackle point scorer last season at 83.
Sandeep Narwal – The third-highest tackle points last season at 254, he has also made the most Super Tackles at 23 in the league.
JAIPUR PINK PANTHERS
Two-time finalists, the Pink Panthers had a disappointing campaign last year as they finished fifth in Zone A. Their star performer has undoubtedly been Deepak Hooda, who notched up 196 raid points which was the sixth highest in Season 6. The acquisition of Nilesh Salunke and Deepak Narwal will add to their raiding strength, while Sandeep Dhull will once again orchestrate the defence in the absence of Mohit Chhillar, who has been replaced by Amit Hooda.
Who’s staying: Deepak Hooda (Captain), Sandeep Dhull, Nitin Rawal, Ajinkya Pawar, Sunil Siddhgavali, Santhapanaselvam, Dong Gyu Kim, Lokesh Kaushik
Look out for:
Deepak Hooda – He had a rousing season last year and a raid point average of 8.9 per match.
Sandeep Dhull – He was the leading tackle point scorer for Pink Panthers with 67, which was also the fifth highest among all defenders last season.
Amit Hooda – With 49 tackle points in 18 matches for the Thalaivas last season, his partnership with Sandeep Dhull will be key in the defensive set up.
DABANG DELHI KC
Last season was the most promising one yet for Dabang Delhi, having made their first playoff appearance, before losing out to UP Yoddha in Eliminator 3. The defence led by Joginder Narwal was instrumental in their success, with the veteran managing 51 tackle points. The addition of Vijay augurs well for the team, given his all-round abilities and he is likely to replace Rajesh Narwal, who was the weak link in the left cover spot last season.
Who’s staying: Meraj Sheykh, Joginder Narwal (Captain), Chandran Ranjit, Ravinder Pahal, Naveen, Vishal Mane, Aman Kadian, Sumit Kumar
Look out for:
Vijay – The all-rounder pulled off 60 raid points last season, in addition to 13 tackle points.
Ravinder Pahal – The top tackle point scorer at 59, he had four High 5s to his name last season and his 263 tackle points are the second-highest in the league.
Vishal Mane – He has the experience of playing all six seasons so far and had picked up 38 tackle points last season.
The most successful team in the league, the Pirates pulled off a hat-trick of wins from Season 3 to 5. However last season was the first in the team’s history when they failed to make the playoffs. Pardeep Narwal has been at the heart of their success that won him the Best Raider of the Season award last year. Besides, the addition of Jang Kun Lee also holds great promise for the Pirates, as they hope to come back stronger this season.
Who’s staying: Pardeep Narwal, Jaideep, Vikas Jaglan, Jawahar, Ravinder Kumar, Naveen, Purna Singh
Look out for:
Pardeep Narwal – He has the most raid points in the history of the league at 858, besides leading the league in Super 10s at 15 last season.
Two playoff appearances in two seasons, the Yoddha side was dumped last year by Gujarat Fortunegiants in Qualifier 2. The signing of Monu Goyat, who is the most expensive player in the history of the league at Rs 1.51 crore, will give them lethal attacking options alongside Rishank Devadiga and Shrikant Jadhav. Nitesh Kumar will hope to continue his form from last season when he became the first defender to score 100 tackle points in a single season.
Who’s staying: Shrikant Jadhav, Rishank Devadiga, Nitesh Kumar (Captain), Sachin Kumar, Amit Nardner, Md Masud Kareem, Azad Singh, Aashish Nagar, Arkam Shaikh
Look out for
Monu Goyat – With 160 raid points last season, he will have to justify the big bucks spent on him.
Nitesh Kumar – The only defender to score 100 tackle points in the history of the league last season, he had an average of four tackle points per match.
Rishank Devadiga – The seventh-highest raid points in the league at 549, he is also tied for the most-Super Raid points in the league’s history.
Telugu Titans vs U Mumba, Bengaluru Bulls vs Patna Pirates MATCHES will be telecast live on STAR Sports Network 7 pm onwards