Birds of a feather flock together. For Dabang Delhi and Bengal Warriors, who are set to play against each other in their first-ever Pro Kabaddi final on Saturday, the proverb holds true.
Not so long ago, the two teams languished at the bottom of the table, trying to avoid the embarrassment of the wooden spoon.
Delhi and Bengal had finished sixth and seventh respectively in the opening season. The next season they swapped places. In season three, the Kolkata outfit made surprise resurgence to reach the semi-finals as Delhi finished bottom before Bengal replaced Delhi in the bottom spot in the season that followed while Delhi finished just a place above.
However three years on, the two sides are one match away from becoming just the fifth team to win the Pro Kabaddi title. Quite a turnaround.
For both Delhi and Bengal, the journey from strugglers to finalists came as a result of much introspection and effort.
Flawed decision-making and subsequent struggles
Dabang Delhi and Bengal Warriors didn’t have poor players, but somehow they cumulated to form fairly poor sides. As a unit, including the coaching staff, they never clicked.
“We had the players, but we didn’t have that one player who could lead the team or make them perform as one unit,” Dabang Delhi’s team manager Omkar Prabhu, who has been at the franchise since the second Pro Kabaddi season, told Scroll.in.
“We had great individuals but there was always something or the other missing,” he added.
For the Warriors, the problems ran deeper.
“When we started we had no knowledge of the game,” Bengal Warriors CEO Sandip Tarkas told Scroll.in. “The AKFI had assigned us the coach and we tried to provide them everything, but we simply didn’t understand the nitty-gritty of game and made all the mistakes we could,” he added.
The Warriors needed two seasons to realise that they needed to improve their knowledge about the sport that would help them to make good decisions for the team.
After season three’s fourth-placed finish, Bengal Warriors thought they had the team to conquer the league, but they fell on their face to finish bottom.
“It was the lowest of the lows for us. We thought we had got the winning formula. The season further made it evident that we still struggled to understand the game,” Tarkas revealed.
For Delhi, the agony lasted for another season. In season five, under another new coach, Ramesh Bhendigiri, the first PhD in kabaddi, the fortunes refused to change prompting a complete re-think.
“As a group, we had other teams like hockey where we were having success. So we always felt that we would get our kabaddi equations right. After season five, we decided we had to get it right and needed to sit down and re-think our entire approach, learning not just from our mistakes but also from things that other teams did right,” Sumeet Yadav, the CEO of Do It Sports that owns Dabang Delhi told Scroll.in.
“For us, it was more determination than frustration,” he added.
Learning, analysing and getting it right
The Warriors, after being subjected to the harsh realities in season four, made a conscious effort to learn and understand the sport.
“We spoke to over 20 people. It included former players and Arjuna Awardees. It was just a casual chat about the sport to understand how the game and the players’ thought processes worked. It was a fruitful experience in my opinion,” Tarkas said.
Bengal appointed former India player Jagadish Kumble as the new head coach and with his expertise got their auction strategy right. They brought in players like Surjeet Singh to lead their side while retaining Jang Kun Lee. However, the key acquisition was that of Maninder Singh, who gave the team an X-factor.
“Maninder’s desire to win was something else. We had some great players but his desire to win was infectious. I feel he deserves huge credit for our turnaround,” the CEO stated.
Delhi, after season five, made a complete structural revamp of their coaching staff and players. Experienced coach Krishan Kumar Hooda was brought in along with a new assistant coach, a new physio and a new strength and conditioning coach.
“We wanted to build a core of team based on experienced players. We identified Joginder as our captain from before the auctions and brought in a set of experienced guys like [Vishal] Mane, [Ravinder] Pahal and Meraj. Then we wanted young players who could play for a longer period of time. The idea was to start a process and build a team that would be ready to win not that very season, but at least in two to three years and continue to do so for years to come,” Yadav revealed.
For Delhi, there was holistic statistics-based research that went into the auctions ahead of season six. They went beyond the basic point-count of the players and focused on the impact a player made. Joginder had the least average of time spent off the court and that’s how they identified him as a player who could stay on the mat longer and lead the team.
In Naveen Kumar and Chandran Ranjit, they found the perfect raiders to complement the experience of Meraj Sheykh. Once a team was formed that reached the playoffs for the first time in season six, the idea was to retain most of those players and improve the combination and bonding.
“We managed to retain six out of the seven players that started for us last season. Since we spent so much time together, the bonding in the team was excellent. We are now like a family and players go out of their ways to help each other out. This has been our key strength this season,” Yadav added.
The Warriors fell before the final on the last two occasions. Since season five, the team was balanced but somehow didn’t have the cutting edge to go all the way. Unlike Delhi who believed in continuity, Bengal improved despite getting rid of its two most senior players – Surjeet and Ran Singh.
“In season four we tried signing all players from BPCL thinking their understanding would help us a lot. But with their chemistry, they also brought in their share of the problems and we struggled. So we decided that we need to keep reshuffling our pack to keep the team fresh,” Tarkas suggested.
Focus on fitness and use of science
Both Dabang Delhi and Bengal Warriors had suffered heavily due to injuries in the past and their main lessons were on the fitness front. The Warriors appointed many fitness coaches and physios but nothing clicked. Having tried strength and conditioning coaches from cricket, they appointed one from mixed martial arts and his entry had a big impact.
“Our new strength and conditioning coach has drastically improved our team. He has new warm-up drills, training regimes that the players were never exposed to. Now, they flock to him when they need to work on any physical aspect of their game,” the Warriors CEO revealed.
Delhi too have taken the fitness aspect seriously. Appointing a former rugby strength and conditioning coach, they have managed to track the players’ fitness even in the off-season.
“He spoke with every player after every exercise took his feedback last season. This season every player has a customised workout routine on the basis of how their bodies react to each exercise. The players were in touch with him even in the off-season so that they didn’t lose track of their fitness training,” Yadav explained.
In the last two seasons, the results have shown as Dabang Delhi have missed very few players due to injury, thus allowing their main team to perform.
On Wednesday, Delhi and Bengal completed their turnaround to make it to their first-ever final in Pro Kabaddi. Years of failures, subsequent lessons and resultant application had borne fruit.
“It was a proud moment for us. For a team that struggled to cope with injuries to one or even two fringe players, had won a semi-final with their best player out. It told us that we are in control of what we are doing as a franchise,” Warriors’ Tarkas summarised.
The emotions were similar for Delhi whose players shed tears of joy after the semi-final win. Often at the wrong end of the table, Delhi rejoiced after winning the league phase this season. Now all that is left is to finish the job.
“Delhi ab sirf ek match door hai (Delhi is just one game away),” concluded a smiling Yadav expecting the very best on Saturday.