Within 10 minutes of the start of Season 9 of Pro Kabaddi, all the excitement that was built around Pawan Sehrawat fizzled out. The 27-year-old, among the most entertaining and effective players in the sport, had been purchased for a record Rs 2.26 crore by the Tamil Thalaivas – more than half their budget in the pre-season auction. But a knee injury, which later required surgery, ended his season before he could well and truly start.

In that first match for the Thalaivas though, with Sehrawat being taken off, 22-year-old Narender Hoshiyar picked up a Super 10 in his first-ever Pro Kabaddi game. He’d do it another 14 times in the season and finish as the fourth best raider.

Then there was Ankush Rathee, eventual champions Jaipur Pink Panthers’ unforgiving left-corner defender who walked away with the ‘best defender’ award for his 89 tackle points in his debut season.

Both players made instant impacts when they got on the glitzy mat of the sport’s marquee event, and joined the growing list of successful players to emerge from Pro Kabaddi’s ‘New Young Player’ program.

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Since its inception in 2017, the NYP program been a conveyor belt of fresh faces that have gone on to become legitimate stars of the sport. The likes of two-time Most Valuable Player Naveen Kumar from Dabang Delhi, Season 9’s best raider Bharat Hooda from the Bengaluru Bulls, UP Yoddhas’ Surender Gill, almost half of Season 9 finalist Puneri Paltan’s team, and many more have come through the program. It is helping the league become faster through the injection of fresher legs and wide-eyed younger players eager to make their mark.

“Today we’ve reached a stage where, apart from Fazel Atrachali, Puneri Paltan doesn’t have any star player, said Bulls coach Randhir Singh Sehrawat in a press conference. “We don’t have any stars. Tamil [Thalaivas] doesn’t have any stars. But now we’re building stars, new stars. It’s good for kabaddi that new players are coming up.”

Creating the program

Since the League started in 2014, apart from Maninder Singh, none of the original poster boys are playing the domineering roles in their teams – the likes of Rakesh Kumar, Anup Kumar and Manjeet Chhillar have long hung-up their boots. In a contact sport that demands agility, speed, and the ability to sustain harsh bodily blows, there was a thought that a program to channel in younger players was required.

“We thought that after two seasons there will be difficulty in talent scouting,” E Prasad Rao, technical director of the PKL, told Scroll.in. “We thought that senior players will go, their fitness may deteriorate and the performance will go down. That’s the time we need young talent. But unless we search for it and promote it, it won’t be possible.”

“In 2017, [league organisers Mashal Sports] had trials for players aged between 18-22 from around the country. We had a battery of tests based on kabaddi requirements – like standing jump, to know the back strength and explosive power of the player. There were some agility drills, shuttle runs on a kabaddi mat. We checked their speed, explosiveness, checked their height, weight, armspan... we collected all that data and tested their kabaddi skills. How many are raiders, how many are defenders in what positions.”

In the initial trials, over 10,000 players were tested and the number was culled down, eventually, to 60. These players were trained by the likes of, but not limited to, former Asian Games gold medallists Manpreet Singh (Haryana Steelers coach) and Ashan Kumar (Tamil Thalaivas coach). Yet there was still some hesitance from teams about the project because the players were unknown and had never competed for their respective state teams.

“It just so happened that the Amateur Kabaddi Federation of India was conducting the Federation Cup at that time,” explained Rao. “This tournament only has the best eight nationals teams competing. I asked the AKFI president to have two youth teams for the Federation Cup – AKFI ‘A’ and ‘B’ team. Aisa hila ke rakh diya woh do teams ne (Those two teams created quite a sensation).”

Unearthing gems

In the first season, the NYPs were presented by the league’s organisers to the teams, who then selected them via drafts. Thereon, each of the 12 teams have been given the liberty to conduct their own scouting program to find players – each must recruit four NYPs per season.

And it’s something that has helped unearth talent that otherwise may not have had a chance to compete at such a high stage.

“There is a lot of competition within states when it comes to making the team for the nationals. Each team can only have 12-15 players, so there are a lot of talented youngsters who don’t make the cut,” explained Manpreet.

“But through this platform they get a chance to still play in the league on merit. You see many NYPs now who have not played in the state team before. That talent would have disappeared if they didn’t get such a chance.”

At the same time, the future pool of players continues to grow.

“There’s no fear among the younger players,” said Deepak Hooda, who played for the Bengal Warriors this year. His nephew Parteek Dahiya was a NYP this season and was the best raider for the Gujarat Giants.

“They know they if they are good enough, they will get to play. They play freely.”

Making their mark

Last year, Randhir Singh, as a chief guest for a local tournament in Haryana, stumbled upon Bharat and immediately recruited him for the Bulls. The tall youngster proved his talent last year playing second-fiddle to Pawan, but stepped up in his performances this year to be the second-best raider in the league stats.

Similarly, Gill kept the Yoddhas’ boat afloat while Pardeep Narwal took some time to warm-up both last season and this year.

Meanwhile the Puneri Paltan recruited heavily from their youth academy, as the likes of Aslam Inamdar, Mohit Goyat, Akash Shinde and Pankaj Mohite joined their ranks as NYPs.

Then there are the stellar defenders Saurabh Nandal (Bulls) and Sagar Rathee (Thalaivas).

The boom of the NYPs – a requirement that has helped grow the pool of talent – has created an off-season competition among teams. The players, meanwhile, are happy to step up to the mat and take their chances.