AHMEDABAD - There was a stark contrast in the way the two lead raiders of Bengal Warriors and Dabang Delhi KC -- the finalists of the Pro Kabaddi League Season 7 -- showed up at the EKA Arena by TransStadia on Saturday. Maninder Singh, Bengal's captain and lead raider, could barely smile, while Naveen Kumar, Delhi's top scorer, beamed.
The reason was something PKL fans - particularly Bengal fans - knew about, but didn't expect, or at least hoped would not be true. Maninder had confirmed his absence in the team's maiden PKL final.
A shoulder injury during a successful - but eventually costly - raid during Bengal's previous match against Delhi had forced Maninder to out of this contest to recuperate.
"I'm fit to play," he had said in the pre-match press conference. "It's all up to the physiotherapist now."
However, it wasn't meant to be. Acting as the assistant coach for his team on a day he would have otherwise preferred to go all out, the fact remained that Bengal's chances looked bleak even before the match started.
It wasn't surprising that a demoralised Bengal, then, started in underwhelming fashion, trailing 6-0 against a determined-looking Delhi. Two minutes later, they suffered an all-out. The result looked certain... or did it?
Veteran Jeeva tames young turk Naveen
Defender Jeeva Kumar, known for his blocks and dashes, produced a smashing block of Naveen to bench him for the first time in the match. This gave Bengal the hope they were waiting for, and something clicked. "Our strategy was to slowly build up our performance. Yes, we had a tough start, but we wanted to keep going," Jeeva later said.
Their captain, Iran's Mohammad Esmaeil Nabibakhsh, needed to step up in Maninder's absence. And step up he did. With one relentless attack after another, his aggressive gameplan was clear for everyone to see. It took exactly seven explosive raid points from him in the next 10 minutes for Bengal to inflict an all-out and bridge a huge 10-point gap to tie at 17-17 going into half-time.
To say Nabibakhsh was on fire was an understatement. The Iranian knew it very well, as he smiled and celebrated a job well done while team-mate Sukesh Hegde stroked his hair in appreciation. "Whatever we did, worked well," Nabibakhsh later explained in broken English. But all that mattered was his actions on the mat that mended a team that seemed to be on the verge of a breakdown.
Nabibakhsh provides the breakthrough
There was a moment in the match where cover Anil Kumar, the lone man left in the Delhi side, stole a point to revive defender Ravinder Pahal. And then, Nabibakhsh came, arms spread out wide. He ran left, right and centre before being caught from behind by Pahal and pounced upon by Anil Kumar. It looked like a certain super tackle in the making. Except it wasn't.
"Nabi [Nabibakhsh] is our lucky player. He is very smart and his raiding style is very deceptive. He can raid from anywhere, no one can tell from where he'll raid," Bengal coach BC Ramesh said.
That's exactly what he did. He kept moving, pushing and dragging himself towards the mid-line within that 30-second span to pull off a jaw-dropping four-point raid. "That was the exact moment where I felt this team was here to win."
Turning the tide, the Bengal way
The biggest turning point in this final: Naveen was tackled three times, and therefore, benched three times during the match. This led to Bengal capitalising on the momentum exactly when it was required - something that led to as many as three all-outs being inflicted on Delhi. "I knew our defence was better than Delhi's defence. And finally it did work well," Ramesh said.
Executing this gameplan was defender Jeeva, who had bothered Naveen throughout the tournament. The final was no different. Ramesh had earlier pointed out how Jeeva's performances hadn't been "up to the mark", and that he expected him to do better in the final. And the latter did not disappoint as two of the three successful tackles on Naveen were inflicted by him - once via a solid block that restricted the 19-year-old's movements, the other by a dash that no one saw coming to throw him into the lobby.
"We will create a separate plan against Naveen," raider Sukesh had told ESPN before the final. Almost every team this season had their plans in place against Naveen, but no one enjoyed more success against this season's MVP. And that was all down to their execution.
Naveen lives up to his MVP status
Naveen did literally everything he could to save his team from sinking, but it just didn't work out. He scored quick touch points, speedy bonuses, and showed intent even when his team lacked it. Even until the very last raid, he tried. He scored 18 points in 48 attempts - his 21st consecutive Super 10 and his 22nd overall in just 23 matches.
As Delhi coach Krishan Kumar Hooda aptly put it at the post-match press conference, "Naveen has been our most valuable raider. There are wins, there are losses and today was a day filled with mistakes for us.
"But what Naveen has done, and has continued to do, remains outstanding."
That was true, and it was his team that let him down at the end - something even he realised in his last raid, which went empty. A disappointed Naveen cupped his face, unable to hold back tears. "It wasn't our day," was all he could muster to say later.
A team game, after all
Kabaddi is a team sport, and ultimately, the best team won.
"This is a team that listens to each other," Ramesh said. "Everyone plays together and strategises together. Even if someone from the substitute bench has something to say to Sukesh or Maninder, he will, knowing that they'd listen."
Perhaps that was one reason why Bengal won. They had been the best team of the season by a distance. Today too, it all worked out. The team didn't need Maninder because their bench strength and team spirit was enough. Even a raider like Ravindra Ramesh Kumawat, who had played only four matches previously, scored when it was needed the most.
Delhi's story, on the other hand, was the exact opposite. While they started off well, once they started making errors, they started cracking.
"Nothing was working," captain Joginder Narwal said. "Whatever the coach had decided for our defence, our offence, nothing worked out."
And why would it? The team was all over the place after the first all-out was inflicted, and everyone but Naveen and Vijay kept fighting with each other. In fact, Vijay too was on the end of a verbal volley from Joginder, who made it worse by giving him a stink eye.
At the end of all that infighting, it was largely a one-sided match where a set of disjointed individuals came second-best against a cohesive team.