When Haryana Steelers, the bottom dwellers of Season 6, started their campaign this year, very little was expected from them. After their first four matches, which comprised just one win, those little expectations seemed to fade too.
Then, something clicked. The Steelers won eight and tied one of their next ten matches. That shift in momentum paved the way for the team's charge to the playoffs.
Nevertheless, what - or who - has been the change-maker? Most followers of the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL) would believe the reason to be one name: Vikash Kandola.
"In the initial matches, I and [fellow raider] Prashanth Kumar Rai weren't playing because of our injuries," says Kandola. "But then, once we came back, the team found reliability in the offence. That started giving confidence to the defence, and we started turning things around for ourselves."
Out with a muscle injury in the first three matches, Kandola hasn't wasted time since his comeback. Scoring 10 Super 10s in the 19 league-stage matches he has played since, the 21-year-old has ensured a rather astonishing achievement - every time he scores a Super 10, his team wins. He is humble when this is pointed out to him. "I just play the way coach saab [Rakesh Kumar] asks me to play. It's not important whether I score 10 points or not, what actually matters is my team's victory," he says.
One look at him and you might not be able to guess the speed he possesses. With a relatively slight build and a moderate height of 5'7", Kandola looks like any average, pani-puri loving Haryana boy. "I can't eat it though. Diet hai na," he quickly adds, hiding his face. It is only when one sees him playing on the mat that his enormity increases.
Recalling an incident in the previous season where he realised something special was going on, he lets out a laugh. "In a match against Delhi, there were four defenders on their side when I had attempted a hand touch," he says. "Joginder [Narwal] bhaisahab did a tight thigh-hold on me and I somehow managed to unblock myself and jump from below to get a point.
"I still don't understand how I managed to get that point. No one does," he laughs.
His level of deceptive play has been such that even the experienced Manjeet Chhillar, known for his sharp observations on the mat, got a judgement call wrong while challenging Kandola's almost invisible, split-second bonus point in a match against Tamil Thalaivas. No wonder he is only second to Pardeep Narwal when it comes to do-or-die raid points. His tally stands at 40 - a massive six points more than Delhi's MVP Naveen Kumar.
What keeps him going? "Running," he says. "It gives me a lot of energy."
Influenced by his current coach, former Indian captain Rakesh, since the beginning of his kabaddi career, Kandola considers himself lucky to have been playing under his wing. "I grew up watching him and Anup Kumar. There's a lot to learn from him," he says. "One of the biggest things I've learnt from him is to never fret even when I'm tackled once or twice."
Rakesh's way of motivating the team, Kandola reckons, inspires the team to perform better with every match. "Even if there's a case where a raider hasn't scored a single point till half-time, he'll keep motivating us that we can do it, we can come back from here," he says. "That always helps us mentally to bounce back."
Many questioned the appointment of defender Dharmaraj Cheralathan - the senior-most player of the league - as captain of the Steelers' initially, considering the game is heavily dependent on strength and stamina. Kandola, though, believes otherwise. "He has brought in years and years of experience with him," he says. "He knows every player well enough to create a concrete strategy on them. He tells us when to take a touch point, when is a good time to sneak away a bonus point, and that is definitely a factor that has improved our performance."
Essentially a left raider, Kandola is known for his skillful play. His signature running hand touches are, in short, just accurate - almost resembling Ajay Thakur at his very best. However, he shies away from too much credit. "I don't think there's anything different about my game," he says, coyly. "The only thing that I am focusing on more, though, is my speed. I've also become more cautious about staying injury-free."
The caution is valid too. Kandola's earlier seasons had been marred by some injury or the other. Making his debut in Season 4 with Dabang Delhi KC, he went unnoticed, playing only four matches. His breakthrough came with the Steelers in Season 5, but lasted only nine matches after he suffered an ankle injury. "Injuries bother me a lot," he says. "Whenever I see my team losing and I have to sit out for whatever reason, I keep thinking what I would have done if I was on the mat."
Season 6 too, panned out rather unfortunately for Kandola. Even as he performed consistently well, the injuries and eventual absence of captain Surender Nada and Monu Goyat's poor form affected the team's performance immensely. "Nothing was clicking then. It felt really bad to lose," he says.
This time, though, Kandola feels, things will be different. "We have been playing as a team. Everyone is contributing, every raider, every defender," he says. "That trophy is going to be ours this time, no matter what."