January 5, 2019. The final of the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL) Season 6 is on. Gujarat Fortunegiants, the table-toppers of Zone A, are leading, dictating the game. The raiders of Bengaluru Bulls, their opponents, are yet to click.
With four minutes to go, Gujarat continue to lead 29-27. They seem favourites at this point, as they have through the entire season. They've consistently led the points table, winning 17 and losing just three of their 22 group-stage matches -- the highest among all teams.
It feels like déjà vu. They had won the most number of matches in Season 5 as well (15). Surely it won't end like last time.
Except it did.
As the cameras panned toward the title celebrations -- after a last-moment surge from Bengaluru -- there was one area which they didn't cover, where there was deafening silence. Hands covering face, Gujarat coach Manpreet Singh felt numb. It was déjà vu, but not the one he felt minutes back, of his team, once again, topping the charts. This was the kind that neither he nor his team wanted to face again.
"Team ko toh dukh hai, par mere ko toh malaal hai (The team is sad, but I'm feeling remorse)," says Singh. "Winning and losing is a part of the game, but entering the finals not once but twice, back-to-back, being the team with most points throughout the two seasons, and yet not being able to lift the trophy has always been a difficult thought to process."
Gujarat was one of the four new teams introduced into the PKL in 2017, and they exceeded all expectations. "Not only did we make the finals that year, but we were able to win hearts," Singh says. The final didn't go the way he had hoped though, as they suffered a 55-38 loss to Patna Pirates. "We had defeated Patna in two matches before, but then we lost to them in the final. We couldn't make sense of it," he says.
They faced a similar fate in Season 6 too, but in a closer match, losing 38-33 to Bengaluru in the title clash. "They were the only team who we hadn't defeated in the entire season -- we played against each other twice and drew once. Maybe we lacked planning? Maybe they were better in strategizing against us? You never know. But you do know how it feels when something like this happens, right?"
"That's when the coach has to come in, irrespective of the results. We had to stand back up again, we had to let the loss go," he says.
After rebuilding and re-motivating them from scratch, Singh is back with the team in Season 7 -- typically for Gujarat, full of young talent. "Youngsters have always been our focus. This is a three-month tournament. Fitness and sustainability matter the most," he says.
Retaining his core three -- Sunil Kumar, Parvesh Bhainswal and Sachin Tanwar -- Singh is looking to build on the foundation of the team and make it even better. "They have the potential to play for longer, and should definitely be tried and kept within the team. There should be a foundation in every team, a base on which the rest of the team can be formed. These three players give us that. And along with them, we have a lot of promising players waiting in line. The training has been good so far and we are hoping for the best," he says.
Other than the crushing defeats in the final, his biggest challenge so far, he says, has been to maintain the fitness of the players, mentally and physically. "To take care of that, you need to know the players well. Not just professionally, but you have to try becoming their friend, so that they are comfortable sharing whatever is going on in their heads," he explains. "Just the way you can't make a necklace of pearls without weaving them together in a thread, you can't form a team unless they are all bound to each other, like fingers coming together to form a fist."
Having been on the kabaddi circuit for the last 25 years, Singh was a part of India's gold medal-winning teams at the Asian Games and the 2007 World Cup -- where he also won the title of the Man of the Tournament. He was also instrumental in leading Patna Pirates to their first title win in Season 3, before being offered the coaching role by Gujarat.
"My journey has been incredible. To see these kids -- who weren't even known two years back -- grow, earn in lakhs now and be recognized everywhere is a wonderful feeling. Even before I was a coach, I was the advisor in Patna and we brought Pardeep Narwal to the team. Similarly, players like Rohit Kumar and Pawan Kumar Sehrawat were roped in as well. And look where they have reached now!" he smiles.
Talking about the changes that he has witnessed in kabaddi's following post the emergence of PKL, Singh suppresses his laughter. "What can I say? Kabaddi road se five-star hotel me aa gayi hai (Kabaddi has moved from the streets to five-star hotels). Everything has changed," he says.
"Earlier, only the ones who used to love the game knew about it. Now everyone does, including English-speaking children. Earlier, only 10 minutes of kabaddi used to be telecast, that too just the final matches. Now, we have a league. Now, we travel in flights instead of on cycles. We are recognized. It has changed so much, and it makes me very happy."
The Gujarat Fortunegiants have stood out as a solid unit in their two seasons in the PKL. Unlike teams that rely on a few individuals, every player has played a key role in Gujarat's success. Singh intends to maintain just that, and hopes it'll finally bear fruit -- read trophy -- this season.
"Kabaddi is a team sport. There's a playing seven and then there are five players on the stand. It's everyone's game," he says. "I don't want one player from my team to score 100-200 points at one go while the rest don't do much. I don't care how other teams strategize, my funda is simple - it's a collective effort, and has to be played like that. If every member of a team contributes and scores 3-4 points each per match, there's no way you'll lose."
"Gujarat have been a team that brings new, young players to the forefront and plays well. Hopefully, we will do very well this season too," he says.