Which player has made the most number of finals in the Pro Kabaddi League? If you're thinking Pardeep Narwal, you're mistaken. If you're thinking Anup Kumar, you're wrong too. While as many as 103 men have appeared in a PKL final, one stands out, right on top.
Meet Vishal Mane -- Dabang Delhi KC's left cover -- who has now made not one, not two, not three, but five finals in the PKL. His team might be in their first final ever, but being on this stage is familiar territory for Mane. "I was with U Mumba when they made the first three finals, then with Patna Pirates in Season 5 and now with Delhi," he says.
One of the most-experienced players of the league, Mane gets nostalgic when he talks about the final that has been the closest to his heart. "Mumba had reached the final in their very first season against Jaipur Pink Panthers. We had lost in a very one-sided match. That's when we had realized what it meant to win a tournament like this," he recalls. "Then came season two. That's when it all came together for us." Against Bengaluru Bulls, Mane's team Mumba won the title 36-30. "Haarta hua match jeet gaye they hum (We'd won a match we had been losing). And I scored a High-five too," says Mane.
That High five was no mean feat since Mane was the highest-scoring defender that day in a match featuring high-quality defenders like Manjeet Chhillar, Surender Nada, Fazel Atrachali, Dharmaraj Cheralathan, Mohit Chhillar, Jeeva Kumar and Joginder Narwal. "That was not just my favourite final of the PKL," says Mane. "It was perhaps the best moment of my life. My performance had led to a win for my team. What else would I want?"
Explaining his role as a cover, he says, "What is a defence without a cover? If a raider comes with the corner having to defend without the support of a cover, that would make it difficult for the corner to pull off the tackle all by himself. A cover gives that footing and strength to the defence." No wonder his favourite movement is the dash, a move that requires immense core strength as a defender charges across the mat and pushes the raider out of bounds. "When a player loses focus even momentarily, a dash is the best weapon you can use. It happens as a momentary action, so quick, so powerful."
Season after season, Mane has played for various teams -- four so far -- but what sets the Delhi team apart, he believes, has been the increased influence of fitness, physiotherapy and planning. "We understood that if we had to do something, we had to do something properly," he says. "The coach, along with the sports and conditioning coach Sandesh Rangnekar, built an entire chart of all our positives and negatives, and what to improve on."
He also gives a lot of credit to injury rehab, a factor that has helped the Delhi team remain relatively free of injuries this season. "We were given specific workouts to avoid and deal with injuries," he says. "Before every match, we used to be asked how we feel and how much we can perform, according to which we used to strategise. This is something due to which we have remained the same team we were when we started off."
For Mane, his record number of finals don't matter as long as there's "unity in the team". That's where he feels he can add value. "Whatever team I play with, I try and put them all on the same page. It's a team game." However, his way of doing so is slightly different.
"It's my duty as a senior player to keep my team's mind fresh," he explains, suppressing a laugh. "So I come up with pranks to lighten up everyone's mood." Describing an incident where he and his teammates were going for a practice session, he says, "There were several dogs barking near the building and everyone was scared whether they'll come to bite. No one was in the mood to practice that day, so I came up with a plan."
"There is a junior player in our team, Neeraj Narwal," he says. "I held his thigh with my hand and made the sound of a dog barking. He got so scared that it was hilarious. Had we recorded it, it would've become viral."
The main motive behind his prankster image, Mane says, is to make the team feel comfortable. "At the end of the day, you have to make them feel at home," he says. With the three-month format of the league, it is likely that any newcomer will feel homesick -- something that could later affect their performance too. "When we started off, we were not used to a league format like this, and to be away from our families wasn't easy at all. Now, as the league is increasing its scale and duration, we know how it is like and can only make it friendlier and more fun for our juniors so they adapt well mentally too."
Going into the final against Bengal, Mane feels that Delhi can win the PKL title with "its spirit remaining firm," he says. "We haven't been in this team for these three months; we have been in it two months prior to the season itself. We have been this way since our first practice match."
"This is a team that doesn't think of what the next match is -- a league match, a semifinal, a final. All it thinks of is to win, to give it their best, whatever the match may be," he says.
The best part of winning, though, is the post-match celebrations. "Once we win a match, it's like a different scene altogether," he says. "We sing, we dance, we enjoy. Since most of our players are from Haryana, we end up playing too many Haryanvi songs. I don't mind though, all I care about is to dance."
And how does he plan to celebrate if Delhi wins the title? "I'm going to catch up on my Mumbai special vada pavs. I've been on a diet and haven't had it in months," Mane laughs.