In his first match as captain of defending champions Dabang Delhi, Naveen Kumar picked up from where he left off in last season’s final to power his side to a handsome 41-27 win over U Mumba in the first match of Pro Kabaddi League Season 9 at the Sree Kanteerava Indoor Stadium in Bengaluru on Friday.

Last season, Naveen was the star raider of the team. With old hands like Joginder Narwal, Manjeet Chillar and Sandeep Narwal guiding the team, Naveen was free to focus on the thing he did best — raid. This season, however, the 22-year-old has been tasked with leading the team as captain.

“Before the match, Naveen said ‘first impression is the last impression’ (sic). We will always give our heart and soul while on the mat. We will win and lose matches, for sure, but our strategy will always be to give our maximum power to start strongly. The players were able to do that today,” Delhi coach Krishan Kumar Hooda said in the post-match press conference.

Pro Kabaddi: The closest final, a star raider in Naveen Kumar, a new champion in Dabang Delhi

Naveen picked up from where he left off last season scoring 13 points and he was ably supported by Ashu, who picked up six raid points and a tackle point, in a dominant win for the defending champions. The youngster also marshalled his defenders while also rotating his raiders well as Delhi had a raid success rate of 41.46%.

“The attack was very good today. Naveen got us points when we needed them the most. I had told him to play a bit safe and only go for points when we needed them. In other times, just play with the team and he did that. He made a couple of empty raids which were a part of our strategy,” Hooda said.

While the Delhi attack performed as expected, it was their defence which ultimately proved to be the difference.

The Delhi defence of Ravi Kumar, Vishal, Krishan and Sandeep Dhull notched up 15 tackle points and boasted a 60% tackle success rate compared to Mumbai’s 34.62%. More importantly, the defence came out on top at crucial moments in the match.

At the pre-season auction, Delhi chose not to re-sign Joginder and Sandeep, instead opting to build a youthful defence around Naveen. They retained Krishan and bid big to snap up Ravi Kumar from the Haryana Steelers. They also brought in the left defensive duo of Sandeep Kumar Dhull and Vishal for a combined Rs 60 lakhs.

Midway through the second half, Naveen was super tackled twice as U Mumba threatened to launch a late comeback. However, on both occasions, the Delhi defence did well to limit the damage and ensure their skipper was back on the mat to help inflict a second all-out on their opponents.

While Vishal and Sandeep timed their tackles to perfection, it was Krishan at right corner who pulled off a couple of impressive ankle holds even as his teammates had all but given up on the raid.

“At the auction, we had planned to build a young defence and we have practiced well. I told Naveen many times before that for the first time, ‘ki hamara defence khulke khelega aur tikega’ (our defence will play well and stand firm). And today you saw the results of that. You won’t even be able to decide which of our corner and cover defenders was the better player today. Everyone played well and I’m really happy with our defence,” Hooda added.

U Mumba coach Anil Chaprana also praised the Delhi defence admitting that they scuppered his plans for the match.

“We knew Naveen and Ashu were the key players and with Vijay out, we could have an advantage. But their boys caught us on our raids and due to that, some of our plans did not work out,” he said.

Many a times, the best of players crumble when tasked with performing at a top level while also handling leadership responsibilities. Going by his player-of-the-match performance in Dabang Delhi’s win on Friday, Naveen has shown signs that the burden of captaincy won’t be weighing too heavily on him.

“The most important thing is that Dabang Delhi, under Naveen’s captaincy for the first time, defended really well and the credit should also go to him and the players,” Hooda said. “They showed good understanding between them which makes me believe that they’ll continue to play well in the future.”