There was a moment, late in the second half of UP Yoddha's 38-31 loss to Gujarat Fortunegiants in Qualifier 2 of Pro Kabaddi League (PKL) Season 6, when UP looked like they might complete an improbable win. They had come back from being 29-14 down early in the half to effect an All Out and then cut the deficit to 34-29. They still needed at least six more points with a little over two minutes left, but with momentum on their side and Gujarat looking a bit rattled in that period of play, victory wasn't inconceivable. Then, Gujarat took a timeout, after which they steadied the ship to make their second successive PKL final.
That match narrative of so close, yet so far is perhaps an accurate microcosm of UP's second PKL season. They began reasonably well, registering a 3-3-1 win-loss-tie record in October. In a winless November, they lost seven matches and tying two, seemingly ending their playoff hopes. A 5-0-1 run in league-stage games in December saw them seal the final playoff spot in Zone B by beating Bengal Warriors - who were playing at home - 41-25 in the final league match and snuffing out defending champions Patna Pirates' hopes.
Throughout this season, young defender Nitesh Kumar has arguably been UP's best player, especially during their late resurgence. In the crucial win over Bengal, the 21-year-old scored six points from seven tackles. In the 34-29 defeat of U Mumba in Eliminator 1, Nitesh scored eight points from 10 tackles. Against Gujarat on Thursday, Nitesh scored six tackle points to become the first player to score 100 tackle points in a PKL season. With Nitesh also leading the list of successful tackles and number of High 5s scored, he should be the first name on UP's retention list for next season.
"Nitesh has performed at such a high level from the start of this season. Even though the team wasn't performing well, he was a one-man show taking the team forward. I'm very happy for him because he's managed this feat at such a young age in just his second season. His future is bright. We wanted to play well and get to the final just for Nitesh but we couldn't win today and I'm a little sad for that," UP captain Rishank Devadiga said after the match. Nitesh was even praised by Gujarat coach Manpreet Singh for having 'all the abilities a right corner defender should have,' but the player himself said he was 'a bit upset' over not having scored more tackle points, especially at the start of the match.
Although Nitesh was not entirely satisfied with his showing, it was attack, not defence, that made the difference on Thursday. Both teams scored 10 tackle points each, but Gujarat outscored UP with 22 raid points to 17, pulling away at the start of the second half to extend their lead from five points to 15. "At the start of the second half, our first raider went out of bounds. Before the half, our captain Rishank had a muscle pull. This led to us being a bit defensive. Thoda defense mein bhi aapas mein combination gadbad ho gaya (The defenders also messed up their combinations a little). That troubled us," UP coach Jasveer Singh said in his assessment of the match.
Despite their inability to make the final, there is no doubt UP have had an encouraging season, one that is an improvement over last year. No doubt, they will take heart from how they fared in getting to the playoffs. Rishank, who finished the season with 104 points from 23 matches and just one Super 10, said his individual performance 'was not satisfying' but that the team did very well overall. "Even though we had ups and downs at the start, all the players worked really hard. I consider this season a very good one because such a comeback has not been done before in all six seasons. To be able to do so is a good motivation for us and for other teams.
"I'm looking forward to the next season."