After 132 matches spread across almost 12 weeks, the league-stage play in Season 6 of the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL) ended on Thursday. The six teams in the IPL-style playoffs are Gujarat Fortunegiants, U Mumba, Dabang Delhi, Bengaluru Bulls, Bengal Warriors and UP Yoddha.
This is what the three months of whirlwind action has taught us:
Patna pay for inability to replace Goyat
After making the playoffs in all five previous seasons and winning the last three titles, the Patna Pirates are missing from the business end of the league this time. Their last chance of making the final six was dependent on a Bengal win on Thursday, but UP won 41-25 to seal their berth.
Ever since the Haryana Steelers snatched Monu Goyat away from Patna for Rs 1.51 crore in the auction, we have wondered if the Bihar team would be able to replace a player like Goyat, whose assistance to Pardeep Narwal was crucial to Patna's title win last season. Did they? No, not quite.
His replacement, Deepak Narwal, was used only inconsistently -- especially during Patna's home leg, during which the team finished with a 1-5 win-loss record, despite Deepak outscoring Pardeep on occasion. Patna have always been over-reliant on Pardeep, but this time there wasn't anyone to pick up the slack as effectively as Goyat did in the past. Effectively, Pardeep's off days cost them heavily this season. Patna's poor defence -- which conceded the most points in the league this season (835 compared to 638, the least, conceded by U Mumba across 22 matches) -- only added to their woes.
Gujarat - the best of the newcomers
Gujarat and UP are the only two of the four new teams to make the playoffs in their first two seasons. Gujarat are, by far, the best of the newcomers. They finished top of their zone each time -- on this occasion, despite missing big names such as Atrachali and Sukesh Hegde from last season. This year they filled their squad with relatively lesser-known but useful performers like Parvesh Bhainswal and K Prapanjan to assist captain Sunil Kumar, and have quietly gone about their business.
Last year they were undone by Pardeep's brilliance in the final. But with Patna out of the picture and the shortest potential path to the final, Gujarat are the team to watch out for this time.
Bengaluru's Zone B-topping effort this year -- they hadn't made the playoffs since finishing runner-up in Season 2 -- is almost singlehandedly down to Pawan Kumar Sehrawat. A somewhat surprising pick at the auction given that he had only scored 21 points in 19 games over the past two seasons, Sehrawat has vindicated Bengaluru's faith. By the time he played four matches this season, he had already scored 76 points -- a huge improvement over the 74 points he scored in 32 matches in his previous three seasons.
Currently, Sehrawat leads the list of total points (247) and raid points (236) scored -- this includes the 16 points he scored on Thursday to ensure his team's table-topping finish. Part of what makes him difficult to defend against is his street-smart style and ability to improvise.
Iran's Fazel Atrachali has justified the Rs 1 crore U Mumba paid to get him back to the team. The first defender to score 100 tackle points in the league, he is also the only overseas player to feature in four finals, winning titles with U Mumba in Season 2 and with Patna in Season 4. His success in leading Gujarat into last season's final on their debut presumably gave U Mumba the confidence to appoint him captain.
And like with Gujarat, Atrachali has delivered with U Mumba too. That U Mumba lead the league in tackle points scored (278) and tackle points per match (12.64) shows his effectiveness in marshalling the entire team. Atrachali remains the only foreign captain to lead a team to the playoffs, for the second season in a row.
No more Captain Cool
Amid the scramble for playoff berths came Anup Kumar's announcement of his immediate retirement from the sport. Anup has been an important figure in the success of the Indian national team and the U Mumba franchise. In the PKL, he led U Mumba to three consecutive finals in the first three seasons, winning the title in Season 2. Anup's on-court calmness in any crisis made him kabaddi's Captain Cool.
This year, however, his stock appeared to be on the wane. In March, he was excluded from the list of probables for the Asian Games. After leading U Mumba for five seasons, the team chose not to retain him, and Anup joined Jaipur for a much lower sum than he commanded earlier. His playing career may be over but it's highly unlikely that we won't see Anup Kumar in a kabaddi arena again.
Meanwhile, it is over to the playoffs from December 30.