"He came to me on the verge of tears, saying, 'I'm leaving kabaddi.'"
According to Bengaluru Bulls coach Randhir Singh Sehrawat, this was what Pawan Kumar Sehrawat told him after Pro Kabaddi League (PKL) Season 5, which ended with Patna Pirates winning their third successive title on October 28, 2017. Pawan had just completed a second disappointing season -- with runners-up Gujarat Fortunegiants and with Bengaluru in Season 4. This after a decent PKL debut with Bengaluru in Season 3.
A little over 14 months later, Pawan capped off Season 6 by single-handedly carrying Bengaluru to a 38-33 win in the final for their first PKL title. He finished with the most total points (282), most raid points (271) and won the league's Most Valuable Player (MVP) award, displacing back-to-back MVP Pardeep Narwal, who finished with 49 total points less than Pawan.
Now, Bengaluru begin their title defence against three-time champions Patna on Saturday, the opening day of Season 7. Prior to their title run, Bengaluru had last made the playoffs in Season 2, finishing runners-up to U Mumba, but this time expectations from them are high. It's the same for Pawan, who will no longer fly under the radar, at least in the early stages, like he did last season. Teams have had plenty of time to fine-tune their defence against his swift hand touches, so he will need to add to his repertoire to maintain his high-scoring ways.
Talking about the improvements Pawan has made, Bengaluru captain Rohit Kumar said, "Pawan's speed has improved, He has also increased his strength, which improves his chances of getting out of a tackle, even against three-four defenders."
But what about last season? What was the reason for Pawan's drastic turnaround after two disappointing campaigns?
At the auction for Season 6 in May 2018, Bengaluru shelled out Rs. 52.8 lakh to bring Pawan back to the team. It was the most they spent and nearly four times as much as Gujarat had paid for him in Season 5. At the time, it seemed a somewhat surprising move. However, according to Randhir and Pawan, it was a calculated decision -- a small but crucial part of a bigger plan -- the groundwork for which was laid well before the auction.
The plan was to bring Pawan to Bengaluru and the process to improve his game began well before the auction. "My debut season was quite good. I didn't have too many skills I was utilising, I was doing mostly hand touches and jumps. In Season 4, I practiced a lot on the same skills, but didn't add anything new to my game. In Season 5, I didn't get many chances.
"Before the auction, for three months he (Randhir) made me practice a lot. He used to come to my village and say, 'Pawan we will get you to our team.' He used video analysis to show me my shortcomings, got me to add the dubki and turn to my skill set, improve my reaction speed and made me do lots of workouts, a lot more running and raiding, including on sand," Pawan says.
The rigorous training continued after the auction. "At the (pre-season) camp, in one practice, we would do 100, sometimes 200 raids. That's how I got to the level I was at," he says.
The sheer belief Randhir showed in him during the training process helped him believe he could actually perform well. "Coach (Randhir) has had the biggest role in improving my performance."
The final piece of the puzzle was then solved with the backing he received from Rohit. "Rohit's role has been massive. As captain, he would leave his own raiding and send me, saying I am like a younger brother to him and that I should go and raid. He gave me so many chances, I did 60-80% of the team's raids," he says.
In all probability, Pawan will continue to carry out a similar share of his team's raiding workload. Even if that comes with a greater sense of expectations this time around, Rohit, as well as PKL veteran and Tamil Thalaivas captain Ajay Thakur, believe it won't make a difference. They believe he is simply unaffected by pressure. True to that perception, when asked if he felt a greater pressure to come good after he'd become the team's most expensive buy last season, Pawan had said, "Whether it's 53 lakh or 1 crore, there was no pressure on me. Yes, everyone needs money, but that didn't have any effect on my game in terms of thinking, 'I've gotten this money, I have to perform now.' I was playing without pressure and enjoying it. I have an interest in kabaddi, which is why I play it. Whether it's 14 lakh or 53 lakh I'm playing for, it doesn't make a difference to me."
It is noteworthy that Pawan's enjoyment of kabaddi comes after being on the verge of quitting the sport. And it wasn't even the first time the thought had crossed his mind. Having chosen to pursue the game after essentially stumbling into it, Pawan says his parents wanted him to focus on studies because of greater professional scope and the injuries he encountered in the sport. Kabaddi took a mental toll as well. "The selection for National Championships was quite frustrating. When I wouldn't get selected, my mood would get spoiled and I would think, 'chal yaar, ab chhod dete hain (let's leave the sport).'"
As destiny would have it, it was Randhir who got Pawan his break in the PKL after seeing him play at the university level and having been impressed by his talent. And it's Randhir who continues to transform Pawan's game. So what's next for the seemingly unstoppable raider?
For now, Pawan is focused on defending his team's title. "Whatever records I've made this time, I'll make even bigger records next time and take my team to the final next season as well," he says.
In the long term, Pawan dreams of playing for India. For Ajay, hero of India's 2016 World Cup win, that is a foregone conclusion.
"In my view, if anyone will be India's main raider in the future, it will be Pawan."