After a season that lasted a little over two months, Pro Kabaddi season 8 ended the way it had begun: with a cliffhanger. 22 December, 2021: Tamil Thalaivas and Telugu Titans played out a 40-40 draw in match number 2. Fast forward to the final in Bengaluru on 25 February, and the Patna Pirates came agonizingly close to sealing a record fourth Pro Kabaddi title. But instead, it was Dabang Delhi KC, the season 7 runners-up, who held their nerves to win their maiden league title. The score: 36-37, in Delhi’s favor.
Returning after a two-year long hiatus, this season of the professional kabaddi league was always going to be different—no fans, the constant shadow of covid-19 looming and a move away from its traditional traveling caravan format. Here’s a recap of the season, which saw 137 matches and the coronation of a new champion.
Delhi stop the Patna juggernaut
The finalists began the match wary of each other—the defensively solid Patna facing Delhi’s mix of experience and youth, reliant on raiders Naveen Kumar and Vijay Malik. Patna ended the first half with a slender two-point lead.
The second half proved to be more eventful and the moment of the match arrived 11 minutes from time when Malik, who’d often bailed out Delhi in Kumar’s absence due to injuries, bagged a spectacular super raid (of three points). This was the turning point where Delhi began to take control of the final thanks to their excellent supporting raider, who finished the match with 14 points to his name.
One of Patna’s key players this season was Mohammadreza Chiyaneh Shadlu. The Iraninan all-rounder ended the campaign with more tackle points (89) than any other player in the league. But it was evident that the big game pressure got to him in the final, with defensive errors throughout the match. Towards the end, Shadlu took matters into his own hands, putting in a few quick raids, but by then it was too late. Tactically, coach Ram Mehar Singh ran out of substitutions and couldn’t introduce raider Monu Goyat into the mix from the bench. Delhi held on to become champions for the first time.
This Patna team had bulldozed its way past all comers this season, ending the league stage right at the top of the table with 16 wins and 1 tie, losing just 5 matches in all. But critically, three of those defeats were against Delhi, including one in the all-important final.
Big names disappoint
Before the season began, much was expected of one particular player: Pardeep Narwal, the former Patna Pirate raider who was bought by the UP-based franchise UP Yoddha for ₹1.65 crore at the season 8 auction in August last year. This also made him the highest bid player in the league’s history so far. But a return of just 188 raid points in 24 matches was disappointing, to say the least. In comparison, he had finished with 302 points for Patna in 22 matches in season 7. Remember: Narwal also holds the current record of most raid points scored in a single season (369) and most raid points scored in the league’s history (1,348).
Yes, Narwal looked leaner and fitter this term. There were rare glimpses and the occasional dubki, a move he still executes with perfection, but this wasn’t the Pardeep Narwal of old. When a franchise pays the big bucks, you expect your star player to be consistent and lead from the front. Instead, it was Surender Gill, UP’s secondary raider, who took the plaudits for his performances throughout the season, with a total of 189 raid points in 23 matches.
As far as disappointments go, Telugu Titans certainly had a season to forget, with just one win all season. Their go-to player Siddharth Desai’s season was cut short due to an injury. At U Mumba, the often-impressive Fazel Atrachali looked a shadow of his old self this season. While Atrachali excelled in the captain’s role—marshaling U Mumba’s young raiders Abhishek Singh and V Ajith—he struggled defensively and had to frequently play through the pain barrier. He managed just 51 tackle points this season compared to 82 in season 7. The likes of Rahul Chaudhari (at Pune) and Ajay Thakur (part of the Delhi squad)—two experienced league campaigners—managed very little game time on the mat.
Young players stand out
When Lounge spoke to Delhi’s Naveen Kumar before the season began, he’d hoped that Delhi would banish the demons of their season 7 loss to the Bengal Warriors in the final and go all the way this time. By the end of the final on 25 February, Kumar was at a loss for words and admitted in a post-match interview that the rush and ecstasy of finally winning the title would keep him awake for days. The 21-year-old was crucial to Delhi in the early stages of season 8, during which he also broke the record for the fastest player to reach 600 raid points. Despite an injury, which saw him miss around 6-7 matches, Kumar finished the campaign with 207 raid points.
Two of the other most impressive young players that made their mark in season 8 were Puneri Paltan all-rounders Aslam Inamdar, 23 and Mohit Goyat, 19. Goyat was named the best new young player of the season for his performances, which included a total of 159 raid points and 28 tackle points. Goyat, who hails from Haryana’s Bhiwani district, emerged as a do-or-die raid specialist in his rookie campaign, scoring 49 points (a do-or-die raid refers to a raid where a raider must score a point and cannot put in an empty raid).
For the second season in a row, an Iranian left corner took home the award for the best defender. It wasn’t Fazel Atrachali, but Patna’s Shadlu, 21. The rookie’s tally of 89 tackle points is the second-highest in a single campaign and he became the cornerstone of Patna’s defense this season. While Patna and Shadlu fell short at the final hurdle, the Iranian will be a player to watch out for in seasons to come.
“Season after season, PKL has witnessed the emergence of new stars and season 8 has been no different,” Anupam Goswami, CEO, Mashal Sports and league commissioner, Pro Kabaddi League says on email. “Young players like Aslam Inamdar, Mohit Goyat, Arjun Deshwal, Surender Gill, Sagar (defender, Tamil Thalaivas), grabbed the spotlight with their phenomenal performances, which also reiterates how the league has been delivering exceptional highlights, expanding the talent pool for the national kabaddi team.”
A promising future for Pune
While Patna were the team to beat and Delhi showed that experience and youth can work well in unison, it was Anup Kumar’s Puneri Paltan side that showed big signs of improvement as the season progressed. Despite struggling in the early stages, this young team played fearlessly—buoyed by the all-round capabilities of Inamdar—under raider Nitin Tomar’s captaincy. For me, this Pune team was a joy to watch.
They were one of the six teams to qualify for the playoffs in season 8, with 12 wins and 9 losses. Compare this to season 7, when they finished 10th in the league table, and you can see why Kumar, a former league player and captain of the Indian kabaddi team, is building something special with Pune. The key now will be to keep the momentum going and further improve the likes of Goyat, Inamdar and others.
Kabaddi’s need for player safety
Kabaddi is a contact sport like no other. There’s speed and agility but also brute force and grappling between players. In that sense, it is perhaps time the sport starts to look at preventing head injuries. When kabaddi players defend, for example, they often go face first into tackles. There are many instances where an escaping raider’s knee makes contact with a defender’s head or face.
This occurred in the second semi-final between the Bengaluru Bulls and Dabang Delhi KC. Bengaluru’s supporting raider Chandran Ranjit clattered into Joginder Narwal, Delhi’s veteran defender, while trying to reach the midline during a raid. Ranjit’s forehead smashed into Narwal’s face, knocking the Bengaluru player out cold. While Narwal carried on after undergoing treatment on his face, Ranjith didn’t play any further part in the match.
This was another reminder of the perils of contact sport. Could the league explore the possibility of introducing protective headgear for players? Many sports— including football and rugby—have adopted protective headgear to mitigate the dangerous effects of head collisions. Using a concussion substitute is another option that has been successfully integrated into football. Athlete safety has become one of the most-talked about aspects in sports in recent years. Why should kabaddi be any different?