Among the several franchise-based sporting leagues that have popped up since the success of the Indian Premier League, Pro Kabaddi is one of the better performing competitions. The Star India-owned league has been successful as a television product, although stadium attendances have witnessed a mild decline in the past few years.
Sustainability isn’t a major concern for the league, although franchises have admitted to a problem with making ends meet. However, in relation to the similar ventures in other sports, Pro Kabaddi’s problems are much lesser in intensity, and considering the league’s growing popularity, there are reasons to harbour hopes for the future as the seventh edition starts on Saturday.
On the sporting front, Pro Kabaddi has well and truly transformed a sport yearning for the limelight for several years. With a drastic improvement in coverage, smart changes in the rules of the game and a professional approach to the sport, kabaddi, a sport that already had a vast talent pool in India, shot to prominence. The league created a space for the game among the urban audiences, having been restricted to rural pockets of India earlier.
Heading into the latest edition — the third with 12 teams on board — it’s fair to say that Pro kabaddi has managed to keep its stakeholders on the same page.
More participating teams meant the season that initially ran for little over a month was spread to over three months. More players entered the fray and each leg of the caravan-style competition that initially lasted for just four days was extended to a week.
However, in season seven, Pro Kabaddi has done away with the zonal format – used in season 5 & 6 – and has instead adopted a simple double round-robin format.
Now all 12 teams will be part of a single league phase. The top six teams will advance for the playoffs. The top two teams will directly qualify for the semi-finals with the other four teams fighting it out for the remaining spots through two eliminators.
The new format is less complicated for the fans in comparison to the previous version when the teams were divided into two zones.
Franchises seem to be welcoming of the change, with coaches calling the new format more clear and effective.
“Last two season we saw people debating if the two zones were evenly balanced. They argued whether a team that was eliminated from a particular zone was stronger than the one that qualified from the other zone. With this format, the picture will be clear and there will be no room for debate,” Krishan Kumar Hooda, the head coach of Dabang Delhi told Scroll.in.
The earlier format was designed to build rivalries. Teams from the same zone played each other three times while facing teams from the other zone only once. However, that idea did not quite materialise as the geographical demarcation of the zones was a bit skewed. Also, in India, where most people have grown up watching cricket, the concept of derby games that one associates with the club or franchise-based sport doesn’t quite cut with the audiences. Even the IPL, for instance, has struggled to build strong inter-franchise rivalries except for a couple.
For the teams as well, the new format helps as they are less exposed to a particular team and thus an element of surprise is retained.
“I think the change was needed. When we faced teams three times, the psychological baggage of the previous match was too much, especially in the third meetings. If we had lost the previous games to a team, it was hard to bounce back as the other team had too much psychological advantage,” Bhaskaran Edachery, the Tamil Thalaivas coach, told Scroll.in.
“Since we had to play certain teams thrice in a season, the games came thick and fast; now the time between two clashes will also be higher, so there will be room for some surprise element when we face the other team. We had given this feedback last year and I’m glad they have noted it,” he added.
The total number of games per team though remains the same (22), despite the format change, thus assuring the duration of the league remains the same.
Longer league and its challenges
This will be the third season when Pro Kabaddi will run for three months and teams now are better equipped for the excessive workload. Anup Kumar, one of India’s superstars, had said last season that it was very difficult to play a heavy contact sport like kabaddi continuously for three months.
Injuries to players become unavoidable and we’ve seen it with players suffering because of that. Surender Nada has been ruled out for the second season running. Nitin Tomar, after being the fastest raider to 100 points last season, failed to take part in the remainder of the season. Young Siddharth Desai too wasn’t fit for the business end of the season as U Mumba struggled in his absence. The problem, thus, isn’t just restricted to the older players.
Teams though are taking stock of the failings of the last campaigns and have altered their approach for the upcoming season.
“It is clear from the last two seasons that in this longer competition, fitness is the most important thing for every player. Your skills are of no use if your fitness isn’t up to the mark. So [most] teams have conducted longer camps before the season. We’ve been training for almost 45-60 days,” Patna Pirates coach Ram Mehar Singh told Scroll.in.
“Teams have hired specialists for improving players’ fitness. The franchises are doing all they can to keep the players in the best possible conditions. As coaches, we have realised we need two players for every position if we are to succeed,” he added.
The significant takeaway from last season was the emergence of new talent. The old guard didn’t have it all going their way and many failed to match expectations. There were five new names in the chart for the top ten raid point scorers last season. Pawan Kumar Sehrawat and Siddharth Desai. who scored 488 raid points between themselves, were leading examples of the change in guard.
Nitesh Kumar, who wasn’t part of the top ten tackle points scorers in season five, topped the chart in season six, becoming the first defender to score 100 tackle points in a single season.
Also, the overall tackle point count increased last season and thus subsequently the raid point count reduced. Although the change wasn’t a massive one, it pointed to the fact that after being left for dead in season five, the defenders got their act together in season six.
“Raiders have to keep reinventing,” Delhi coach Hooda noted. “Same skills are no longer going to last you for your whole career. That’s the change the league has brought about. Now there is so much video analysis done by every team that players have a lot of information about each other. The focus is mainly on raiders and their moves. Hence the need for reinvention is greater for raiders than defenders.”
“You can’t stop new players from becoming heroes now, because there is less information available about them,” Bhaskaran added. “They are fresh and keen to learn more as they have to prove a point. However, the real test for a player comes after a season or two.”
Only time will what the new season holds for the teams and players, but the fundamentals to succeed in this marathon three-month season are likely to remain the same, despite the tweaks in the format.
It will also be interesting to see if the fans who were slightly turned off by the complexity of the previous format, warm up to the more straightforward version this time around.
With a fair few questions unanswered, it’s perhaps time for the players to do the talking on the mat and find out for themselves.