There's something special about Ahmedabad for Sukesh Hegde.
He stood right there, at the EKA Arena by Transstadia, two years back. But the situation was ever-so different from the one he sees right now. Back then, he came to the stadium as the captain of Gujarat Fortunegiants - a team that, in their debut season, had reached the finals of the Pro Kabaddi League. This time, he was playing as a support raider for Bengal Warriors against U Mumba, with his team fighting for a spot in the final.
"I feel a connection towards this stage, this city," Sukesh tells ESPN. "Whenever the crowd cheers, I feel it's for me. I was once their team's captain, after all."
Perhaps it was this connection that motivated Sukesh to "go all out," as he puts it, against a team like U Mumba - one of the best teams in the league with arguably the best defence this season.
In the absence of captain Maninder Singh, Sukesh became the unlikely hero for his team. "I just knew I had to do something then."
And so, he did. He went deep inside the left corner, where Fazel Atrachali - Sukesh's former team-mate at Gujarat and the top defender of this season with 82 tackle points - stood, all ready to pounce on him at the first possible opportunity. While raiders would usually avoid that dreaded side, Sukesh was thinking differently.
At 5'11", Sukesh utilised his height advantage, quickly touching the Iranian and diving towards the mid-line. Even as Fazel, along with three other defenders blocked and dashed towards him, Sukesh speedily crossed the mid-line, securing four valuable points. Super raid done and dusted.
"That was the turning point of the match for me," he says. "The situation was tense but I managed to do what I wanted to do. Ultimately, it became easier for us to win the match because of the lead we were able to secure then."
Before Sukesh went in for that raid, Bengal led 21-16. The four-point raid almost doubled their lead to nine points, which ultimately proved crucial in the end. To add to the list of achievements, Sukesh remained untackled throughout the match, combating the Mumba defence every time he came on as a raider.
When asked about it, though, Sukesh paints a picture only some would see coming. "This season has been very challenging for me," he says. "There was a dip in my performance last season."
Playing for the Tamil Thalaivas last season, Sukesh was dropped after a spate of inconsistent performances. "It was very hard for me," he says.
After being inducted into Bengal this season, it took a while for him to make a mark. He was benched for several matches before being brought in as a substitute. "I played very few matches this time, but whenever I have, I have done well. That makes me happy, it just makes it all better."
Sukesh, despite having played just 15 matches so far since the beginning of the league, has sparkled when it has mattered the most. He scored eight points in the semi-final, the highest from his team, and has an overall tally of 55 points this season despite very limited raiding opportunities.
"I feel my speed has become better this year, and that helps in building my game," he says. That perhaps has been the primary reason why he has finally become a fixture in the starting seven.
Coach BC Ramesh, too, acknowledges Sukesh's presence of mind, calling him his "speed raider".
"Before the match, I had made him sit beside me and told him what to do, what not to do. I told him to play for Maninder, to fill in for him, and so he did," Ramesh says.
Maninder - the top scorer for the team with 205 raid points - has been rested for Bengal's last few matches, something the team has had a difficult time adjusting to. However, both coach Ramesh and Sukesh believe that the presence of three core raiders - Sukesh, K Prapanjan and all-rounder Mohammad Esmaeil Nabibakhsh - would be good enough as a combination against any team, just the way it was against Mumba.
"I have full faith that even if Maninder is not around, my three raiders would score for their team," Ramesh says.
In Bengal's last match against Dabang Delhi KC, the other first-time finalists this season, Maninder had hurt his right shoulder quite badly as he stretched out for the mid-line even as the opposing defenders tried to hold him back. He has not played ever since and is a doubt to even feature in the final. "It'll be up to him, to be honest," Ramesh says. "If he decides to play, he will."
But Sukesh, along with his team, have a backup plan, which he hopes will be good enough going into the final.
"See, if Maninder plays, toh tension hi nahi hai (then there's nothing to worry about), we can win the match very easily. He is an outstanding player who has the capability to score 15-20 points alone," he says. "If Maninder doesn't play, Prapanjan, Nabibakhsh and I will have to produce a combined performance that otherwise Maninder brings in alone."
Ask him if he feels any pressure if the latter situation arises and Sukesh promptly responds, "Pressure aayega toh game bhul jayega (If I'll be under pressure, I'll forget the game). I am only focusing on perfecting my skills and scoring when it's needed the most.
"As long as we go in with the right intent and the right amount of practice, we'll find success."
As far as Ahmedabad is concerned, Sukesh signs off with one wish.
"I hope that the crowd that was once mine cheers with the same gusto for my Bengal team as well."