As Sunil Kumar walked into raid, his teammates behind him had already started to celebrate. There was a fist-bump thrown in, a few hands waved in the air as Sunil sized up the five Puneri Paltan defenders in front of him.
This was the final raid of the match for the Jaipur Pink Panthers. The team had a two-point lead at the time and all Sunil had to do was run down the clock – no need to try anything at all – to ensure his team would win their second Pro Kabaddi League title.
The Paltan defenders moved closer to the halfway line to try and sneak in a quick tackle and hope there would be enough time to pull-off an unlikely win from the unlikeliest of scenarios. That is, until Sunil crouched down to the mat, almost entirely sitting down. He was not going anywhere. The Jaipur captain was willing to sacrifice a point but claim the title. And so they did with a 33-29 win in the final.
After an eight-year wait since they first won the title at the inaugural edition in 2014, the Pink Panthers got their hands on the PKL trophy for the second time. Coincidentally, that first title came at the NSCI Stadium in Mumbai too – the venue for the final on Saturday.
Hours before the match could start, colour coordinated ‘ultras’ for both teams marched along the periphery of the stadium. They carried with them flags, drums, vuvuzelas, and even cardboard cut-outs of the faces of Paltan skipper Fazel Atrachali and Pink Panthers’ veteran raider Rahul Chaudhari.
Around them, fans got their faces painted, posed with large banners that had the likes of Atrachali, Arjun Deshwal and Pardeep Narwal neatly printed. And then they walked into the cacophony of noise inside the stadium.
Soon enough the teams walked out and the Bollywood tracks were switched for the numbers designed for the PKL.
For the first 18 minutes of play, both teams had cancelled each other’s raiders out effectively, and kept close on the scoreboard. That is until V Ajith Kumar – who had a stellar semifinal performance against the Bengaluru Bulls – broke through the Puneri defence. It was a raid that helped his team earn an all-out in the first minute of the second half – the only all-out of the match, and one that would eventually prove decisive and pile the pressure on the Paltan.
This was a match-up between two teams with contrasting styles and a vast difference in their players.
The Pink Panthers have relied on their star raider Deshwal and corner defender Ankush Rathee – who went on to pick up the most valuable player and best defender awards respectively. Central to their team though was a solid defensive structure that also involved Sahul Kumar, Sunil, and Iranian defender Reza Mirbagheri. Through this, the team blazed through opponents to finish at the top of the group stage with a massive point difference of 174 – the next best tally was the 66 from the Puneri Paltan, the second-best team in the group stage.
The Pune-side meanwhile had the youngest team in the season, with an average age of 22. Theirs was a team brimming with youthful talent that banked on the experience and leadership of Atrachali. Together, the team put in all-round performances with everyone chipping in with points.
On Saturday though, it was the raiders though who couldn’t quite break through the staunch Jaipur defence. Yet Atrachali asserted that there was no reason for the team to feel displeased.
“I am proud of the team. They played very well,” he said in the post-match press conference. “I’m proud because they fight. One side always wins, one side always loses, but it was good that they didn’t give up and they fought.”
“Because of Pankaj (Mohite), because of Akash (Shinde), because of the young defenders, we are here. We cannot say that maybe Akash or Pankaj was not good so we were not successful. I am very happy with them.
“We were a bit unlucky that we didn’t have (first-choice raiders) Mohit (Goyat) and Aslam (Inamdar), but I cannot say that Akash and Pankaj were not good. We are here because of them. They won us the last few matches.”
Atrachali was hoping to win his first PKL title as captain – he had won the title earlier with U Mumba in Season 2 and with the Patna Pirates in Season 4. But in the Jaipur line-up was coach Sanjeev Kumar Baliyan who had coached the Pirates to the first of their three consecutive-titles, in Season 3.
“(Because I had won it before) that belief was there that we could win, and we had a good team,” Upendra said. “There were a few ups and downs, but there was never really any tension. The players themselves kept saying ‘tension mat lo, koi dikkat nahi.’ The belief was always there.”
The belief soon turned into reality, as the players marched off – danced off, rather – the court and soon returned wearing matching track-pants with crisp white blazers on top. This was only after their team owner Abhishek Bachchan had jumped over the advertising boards to celebrate with the team.
Glittering white and gold confetti burst into the air amidst the pyrotechnics.
Sunil spent the last moments of the match crouched in one corner of the mat, ready to do whatever was necessary to ensure his team came with the win. Then came the moment where he stood tall – broad smile plastered on his face – as he lifted the coveted trophy.
Pune could only watch from the sidelines, wondering what could have been. But the night, and Season 9, belonged to the Pink Panthers.
Corrections and clarifications: The article originally mentioned Upendra Kumar as the Jaipur Pink Panthers coach. It has now been corrected to Sanjeev Kumar Baliyan.