The fifth season of the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL) had as many as 12 teams participating but the winners, Patna Pirates, were the same as the previous two seasons, when eight teams were in contention. Patna, though, never quite had it easy. Despite being two-time champions, they did not start the league as favourites and had to complete an unprecedented hat-trick the hard way.
While the tournament's leading scorer Pardeep Narwal was key to the team's success, coach Ram Mehar Singh was equally instrumental.
Speaking about that win, he says, "When I played the sport, we did not have the PKL or other leagues. The Asian Games was the pinnacle of achievement for all the kabaddi players. India's proud record at the tournament means that anything less than winning gold is a failure for us."
Singh had an onerous task on his hands, with his predecessors Sanjiv Balyan and Arjun Singh having led the team to the title in the last two seasons. Despite an expanded, three-month-long season, the Pirates only bought 18 players at the auction with just one overseas player.
"In such a long season, it is very important to keep the players motivated. We had a young team with a nice blend of youth and experience. While the likes of Pardeep Narwal, Monu Goyat and Vishal Mane are vastly experienced, we had a lot of young players like Vijay, Jaideep and Jawahar Dagar.
"With a young team, it is important to give them clearly-defined roles and encourage them to play their natural game. There's no use of yelling at the players or demotivating them because they only learn by playing more and getting more opportunities."
As the Pirates finished second in Zone B behind the Bengal Warriors, they had to win four matches in the Playoffs to win the title. Their toughest challenge came in the final, where they faced newcomers Gujarat Fortunegiants, arguably the most promising team in the fifth season.
"We had lost both our matches in the league stage against Gujarat and their team had a defence that was far more experienced than ours but I knew that Pardeep and Monu were in very good form throughout the season and it would be tough for any defence to stop them."
Pardeep and Monu scored a combined total of 28 points to seal the title for Patna but Pardeep's best display in the tournament came against Haryana Steelers in the Play-offs -- in a match where he scored an eight-point raid, a feat that was never seen before in the PKL.
"With Pardeep, his skillset is such that you can not do much to stop him. As captain, he single-handedly guided the team to wins in some crucial matches. His reaction time and speed is better than anyone else in the tournament. If you look at that eight-point raid, he touched all those six defenders in a span of two or three seconds to inflict an all-out."
So what role did he play in the captain's unstoppable run? "I don't have to tell him much. All I ask him to do is be fearless and play his natural game. When Pardeep is at his best, it is almost impossible for anyone to stop him," says Singh, modestly.
For those who don't know, Singh is one of India's most decorated players and was a part of the team which won Gold at the Asian Games in 1998 and 2002. He was, in fact, the captain of the team that remained unbeaten in South Korea in 2002.
Singh was conferred with the Arjuna award for his outstanding performance at the 2002 Asian Games. He then started coaching the Air Force and Services team at the national level in 2004. With both those teams doing well, Singh was approached to take over as the coach of the Patna Pirates before season five.
Ask him what his favourite moment has been in his 25-year association with kabaddi, and he says, "Captaining the Indian team to a Gold at the 2002 Asian Games has to be the best. Patna's hat-trick of titles comes a close second."
Singh, who is currently coaching at the national camp, where players are training for the Asian Games, however, has one special wish that he would like to work on in the coming years.
"My ultimate aim would be to add a Dronacharya award to the Arjuna award I won more than a decade ago," he smiles.