April 8, 2019. It was the day of the Pro Kabaddi League Season 7 auctions. BC Ramesh, the newly-appointed coach of the Bengal Warriors, was prepared for the best, and the worst. "Whatever I had planned to do was risky," he says.
In a move that shocked many, the Warriors, who had reached the playoffs three times in the previous six seasons, and twice under the captaincy of Surjeet Singh, decided to let their captain go. "I took inputs from the earlier coach [Jagdish Kumble] to understand the pros and cons of every player," Ramesh says. "I then decided to retain Maninder Singh and let go of Surjeet and Ran Singh." The two biggest names and most experienced players in the team's defence, gone. "We wanted to retain them but they would've been costly, so I got K Prapanjan and Rinku Narwal in the team instead," he says.
What the team was saving up for would turn out to be a weapon that would help them win their maiden title six and a half months later -- Iran's Mohammad Esmaeil Nabibakhsh.
"I had seen his game at the 2018 Asian Games. His footwork was incredible," Ramesh says. When he watched him play, he realised that "ye ladka ek din mere kaam aayega [This boy will one day come in handy for me]." That epiphany of sorts was so strong that when Nabibakhsh was introduced in the PKL auctions, Ramesh knew he had to get him in the team. "I knew my team would become well-balanced once he was included," he says.
Bengal Warriors spent 77.75 lakh - their highest auction bid of the season - on a relatively unknown all-rounder.
Nabibakhsh says, "During the auctions, Fazel [Atrachali] called me and said, 'Hey bro, you got 61 lakh from Telugu Titans.' Then he called again and said, 'You're going to Patna for 74 lakh.' Then again he called and said, 'Wait, you're going to Bangalore.'" Until, finally, Bengal outbid everyone.
"But the taxes are so high, I finally got 60 lakh only," he jokes. "But that's good money in Iran," he shrugs, as everyone present starts to laugh.
Unpredictable. That's perhaps the best word to describe Nabibakhsh's style.
"His game is very different from the traditional game that we play here in India," Ramesh says. "His approach is very different, very deceptive."
When he raids, he's everywhere, covering the entire mat. No defence can predict where he's going to attack from. And when he defends, he stands firm enough to not just support the corners but is fully able to conduct blocks and dashes by himself.
"It's very rare to find a proper all-rounder these days," Ramesh says. Perhaps that's why the Iranian is a special talent. "Here, whenever you do find an all-rounder, he either raids better or defends better. [Nabibakhsh] is good in both."
"I love kabaddi," Nabibakhsh says. His English is broken, and he can't speak or understand Hindi, a language spoken by most of his other teammates. "But [the language] is not a problem," he explains. "Kabaddi is a sport that can be understood well through sign language too, it's like a language in itself." And most of the time, he finds himself understanding what is being communicated to him organically. "We just know," he says.
That's the kind of relationship he shares with everyone in his team. They adore him, treat him like a favourite child who's learning to speak. There's always a pat on the back or a stroking of the hair from his teammates each time he raids - or defends - successfully. And whenever he's asked a question in any press conference, the team starts laughing just the way he does, knowing all too well that he's going to have a difficult time answering it. But he manages it all well.
What he can't manage well, though, is the food. "Everything is so spicy here," he says. "In Iran, you barely add any spice to food, it's all majorly turmeric and saffron."
Back in Iran, Nabibakhsh studied physical education. An aspiring wrestler, kabaddi was introduced to him by Ebad Daliri - a wrestling coach turned kabaddi player himself.
Since then, he has focussed on the game "and a lot of running, so much running," he says. Running helped him gain the stamina and fitness required to be lean and yet strong enough to defend.
His first love remains raiding though. "I love to raid. It's my most favourite thing in the game," he says.
His family though, haven't been completely in favour of his choice of profession. "Since it's a three-month league, my father didn't want me to go," he says. "He misses me a lot so every time he would call, he would ask me to just come back." His mother though, has been supportive since the start. "She's wonderful, always there," he smiles.
In Bengal's last two matches, especially in Maninder's absence, Nabibakhsh had to step up as captain. While he did achieve a win in both his matches - scoring his first Super 10 of the tournament in the final - he considers captaincy to be 'very, very tough'. His best friend, Fazel Atrachali, he believes, is a wonderful captain. "He's so calm. I, on the other hand, find it very stressful having to figure out what to do and what not to do," he says.
His team has had his back though. "We all work as a team when we play," teammate Sukesh Hegde had earlier told ESPN. "We are all around to help each other and listen to each other even during a match." On the day of the final, that clicked, Nabibakhsh clicked, and so did the epiphany coach Ramesh had back in 2018. It all came together for Bengal.
At the end of Saturday's press conference, when asked how it felt to win the trophy, Nabibakhsh, again finding himself at a loss for words, said, "very good," as once again, him and his team, had the final laugh.