Towards the end of a practice session in Pune recently, a younger player from the Puneri Paltan squad went into raid. And he returned with a bagful of points after tagging a few teammates. Immediately, there was applause from his peers – on both ends of the court. Even a whistle from the sidelines. That’s when Fazel Atrachali lifted his hands in an indication for the cheer to end. He walked up to the youngster and placed an imaginary medal around his neck and signalled for the applause to continue.
The brief silence was broken by laughter.
On Monday, as the Puneri Paltan competed against the Patna Pirates, Atrachali was once again the first to greet a raider who had returned with a flurry of points. Pankaj Mohite, this time, had his hair ruffled by the team captain, followed by several pats on the back. By the end of that match, the young squad, with 30-year-old Atrachali as skipper, became the first team this season to confirm its spot in the semifinal of the Pro Kabaddi League season.
And Atrachali’s role has been central to that success.
Apart from the veteran skipper, Pune’s strength and conditioning coach Sangram Manjrekar told this publication that the team’s average age is 23. A squad boasting tons of energy and daring, but lacking experience. That’s where Atrachali comes in. The Iranian – who led his country to the Asian Games gold medal in 2018 – is a campaigner with years of experience, both as player and captain. Leading a team as young as the Paltan though has its own set of pros and cons.
“It’s very difficult. If I say it’s easy, that is a lie,” Atrachali told Scroll.in. “There’s a lot of work because you have to give them all the plans, from raider to defender. With senior players you don’t need something like this.”
“But the good thing is the junior players listen to you. Seniors not always – sometimes they do what they want. It’s a good thing with juniors though that they play like a team. Only the captain has more work.”
Being the captain means you need to be a good man-manager – especially with an inexperienced side. But Atrachali has been doing just fine. He’s the last to send out a raider and the first to welcome him back. He’s a master tactician, reading the game, reading opponents, studying patterns, and then relays that information accurately – despite the language barriers – to his team. And he knows how to motivate them.
“He backs his youngsters a lot and we can see it on the ground,” said former player Rishank Devadiga during commentary about his former U Mumba teammate. “If they make a mistake, even then he’s appreciating him, (saying things like) ‘there’s no need to worry, you can come back stronger’.”
“Every player needs this confidence and empowerment from a captain. We can see this from Fazel.”
Paltan’s coach, former Asian Games gold medallist BC Ramesh concurred.
“It’s like he has a PhD in kabaddi. Where to stand on the mat, the footwork, when and where to make tackles from, he knows. He knows how to motivate players on putting in their best,” Ramesh told Scroll.in.
“Now he’s 30 in a team with players aged from 18-20. But he’s thinking a lot about the team. He puts in a lot of emphasis on fitness and is very involved in the skills training - that’s not very common among players. In a way, when he’s on the mat, he makes things easier for me because he can lead the team well.”
Captaincy is an additional responsibility. But it’s not something new to him. In fact, he’s been in a leadership role for almost an entire decade now – ever since he was made captain of the Iran national team in 2013.
“Most of my life I’ve been the captain of a team with players older than me. Only in the past few years I’ve been among the older players,” Atrachali said.
“You cannot play for yourself. I can’t go for tackles because in my head I know it’s a risk. If I’m out, maybe my team can get all-out, or the team gets under pressure. Sometimes I do go for the tackle when it’s needed, but most times I’m thinking more about the team. Others ask me why you don’t try for High-5 or something, but I know the team is more important.”
In the history of the league, Atrachali is by far the most successful defender. His tally currently stands at 395 successful tackles and 419 tackle points. That’s better than the now retired Manjeet Chhillar’s 374-391.
This season though, more than any other, Atrachali has been interested in what happens as a team rather than individual pursuits. So much so that among the 11 different criteria for statistics provided by the official league website, only two stats have a Pune player in the top 5 – Mohit Goyat is third in the most points won off do-or-die raids, and Atrachali is fifth in the list of successful tackles.
Yet that has been the quality of the Puneri Paltan lineup. Everybody chips in with points, everybody is responsible. But Atrachali is still the one calling the shots and guiding the youngsters.
“He knows what my strengths are, what my skills are,” Aslam Inamdar, Pune’s lead raider, told Scroll.in. “If I don’t usually do a toe touch, he won’t ask me to do that. Since he’s a defender himself, he knows how defenders think and how they are going to react. He tells me whom to target, how to target, what someone’s weaknesses are.”
Instructions though isn’t the only thing he’s about.
“For a captain, you need to know the other players’ feeling,” Atrachali added. “Some need motivation, one you might have to hit, one you might have to scold. It’s my job to understand who reacts how. Everyone has a different attitude.”
Over the years, his pre-game rituals have changed. Earlier he’d spend time focussing on himself, getting himself ready for the match. Now he watches videos of the opposition team and makes notes.
“What are their strengths and weaknesses... I think about that and make a plan and give it to the players,” he added. “It’s like this a day or two before the match. Video sessions, talking about that in practice sessions. We make a plan and then work on that in practice.”
With 14 wins in 21 matches this season (at the time of publication) those plans have mostly worked, as the Paltan find themselves level on points with the Jaipur Pink Panthers. The team now has a dead rubber group stage match against the UP Yoddhas – who have also qualified for the playoffs. Then it’s back to serious business in the semifinal.
Two more wins for the Paltan will see them win their first ever PKL title. Atrachali has already been there. He was a part of the U Mumba squad that won the title in Season 2, and then he lifted the trophy with the Patna Pirates the following season.
But this will be the first time, should they win, for him to do it as captain. He’s already done the unthinkable, leading Iran to an Asian Games gold. He’s not thinking about that title defence yet though.
“Right now,” he added, “winning the trophy here is important for me.”