A mixture of white and glittering gold confetti littered the kabaddi mat. A faint tinge of smog hung in the air, courtesy the smoke machines that marked the end of Season 8 of the Pro Kabaddi League. The Patna Pirates team had rushed off court, led by their unmistakably disheartened coach Ram Meher Singh – a winner of three PKL titles with the team.
On one end of the playing area, cued in by a production crew member dressed in an all-black ensemble, a set of headphones and a writing board in hand, the Dabang Delhi team danced and raised the trophy. It’s a heavy piece of silverware, but the Delhi brigade had no complaints because they had just earned a gripping 37-36 victory in what was the closest final in the eight seasons of kabaddi’s marquee league.
On the other end of the court, tucked in a corner was a clothes-rack on which hung one solitary white jacket with the PKL logo and the word ‘Champions’ emblazoned on the left breast pocket. The other jackets covered the battled and bruised torsos of the winners, who wore identical track pants.
And when the festivities started, there was no mistaking the cheers in Haryanvi that were doing the rounds, nor celebratory chants giving thanks to their favourite deities. There was no packed crowd to suppress them with applause. You could even hear the whirling of the drone camera overhead. The only time you couldn’t hear much of them was when the loudspeakers blared ‘We are the Champions’ by Queen followed by the team’s anthem.
In the entire season, each of the 141 matches from start to finish took place in a bio-secure bubble, and the stadium was the grand hall in the convention centre of a Bengaluru hotel.
On the night of the final though, there were roughly 250 people watching from the makeshift stands – including a small group of media that were seated in chairs with a wooden tray attached (not unlike the one you would see in examination halls).
Outside the venue, a large board designed for selfies had the league’s fabled tagline on it, “#LePanga.”
And this season, of all seasons, holding the league amidst the Covid-19 pandemic was the biggest ‘panga’ organisers could have taken. But it was a challenge that they pulled off, and the event now has a new champion.
Dabang Delhi were the runners-up last season when they lost by five points to Bengal Warriors. It’s a team that, this year, was carried on the backs of veteran defenders and a talented 21-year-old star raider. Naveen Kumar, dubbed the ‘Naveen Express,’ was adjudged the Most Valuable Player of the season for his 210 points in 17 matches.
“Jab woh chalta hai, woh express train se bhi jyada speed se bhagta hai,” coach Krishan Hooda said later, playing on the moniker. “He doesn’t shy away from his responsibilities and duties. He plays from the mind and nobody in the team stops him from playing his game.”
It’s a style that saw him create a record, earlier this season, by scoring 28 consecutive Super10s. He scored two more in the semi-final and final, that too despite not being completely fit.
Mid-season, the youngster from Bhawani in Haryana suffered a serious knee injury that threatened to end his season. A cab driver hired by organisers to shuttle invitees between hotel and venue recalls a tale.
“I had driven him to the hospital the first time he got injured,” he said. “He was in a lot of pain, and two-three more players had carried him and travelled with him. Of course, I had to drive a little extra slow to avoid the bumps, but he was out for at least a month.”
Naveen did make a few cameo appearances to boost his team whenever required, but by then the Delhi defence filled with - veterans Joginder Narwal, Manjeet Chhillar, Sandeep Narwal and Jeeva Kumar – started to chip in with tackles as Vijay (whom Hooda called their chupa rustam) stepped up his raiding responsibilities.
Delhi won close matches, but importantly, they won just enough to take them to second place in the table for a direct spot in the semi-final. In the final they played a much-fancied Patna Pirates team, the table toppers, martialled in defence by the unassuming newcomer Mohammadreza Shadloui Chiyaneh, who won the best defender of the season award for his 86 tackles.
The final was touted to be the battle between Naveen and the Iranian defender – both 21. But it was the Dabang raider who came up best. His 13 points were no match for the two tackle points from the Patna defender. The low strike rate started to affect Shadloui once the game started to slip away. He’d be seen grumbling to himself, hounding teammates for missed chances, and even yelling at the Patna coaches.
When the final whistle blew, he stayed rooted to the spot on the Patna bench. A stone-faced expression hung on his face before he held his head in his arms. The only time he moved from that position is when he lay down on the floor, away from sight.
He’d smile later, when receiving his best defender award – more maybe out of necessity than feel. And as he walked away, he came face to face with his nemesis.
But there was no tension in the way Shadloui and Naveen shook hands, with a graceful nod at each other. Perhaps, it was an acknowledgement of future battles, especially with the Asian Games coming up later this year.
It’s in front of a small crowd that was made up more by kabaddi federation officials, media, and guests of team owners that made for the audience for the final.
But Delhi would not mind that at all. They have been the most consistent team over the past two seasons. It’s just that this time, as proclaimed by the crisp white jackets, they went one step further.