Dabang Delhi vs Gujarat Giants on Sunday was PKL 8's biggest match yet. Delhi, the runner-up from season 7, and Gujarat, table toppers in season 5 and 6, are two of the strongest teams in the league this year. The 14 players who started the match featured the who's who of the kabaddi world and some of the biggest names to have played in the PKL.
This included five of the top 10 on the list of defenders with the most tackle points in the history of the PKL in the form of Manjeet Chhillar (1st), Ravinder Pahal (2nd), Sandeep Narwal (4th), Girish Maruti Ernak (7th), and Jeeva Kumar (10th). In Ajay Thakur and Naveen Kumar, the match also featured the fourth and 11th most prolific PKL raiders of all time. Keep in mind, now, that Naveen is on the verge of breaking into the top 10 in just his third season in the league.
The match eventually ended in a nail-biting tie, ensuring that Delhi is now the only unbeaten team this season and occupy the top position on the points table. The clash of giants, though, saw most big names struggle to live up to their billing, except one.
The MVP from last season, Naveen Kumar towered over everyone else.
11 not out: Naveen gets over his bogey team
Since he first appeared in the league in season 6, Naveen's 33 Super 10s are easily the most by a player in that duration (he's already up to fourth on the all-time list behind Pardeep Narwal, Rahul Chaudhari and Maninder Singh). Remarkably, he has now scored a Super 10 in each of his last 24 matches in the league, easily a record again.
In the previous two seasons, if there's one team that had managed to rein him in, it was Gujarat. While Naveen scores an average of 10.5 points per game in the league, his average points per game against Gujarat stood at 7.5 before this match. Add to that the fact that Gujarat have arguably the most pedigreed defence in the league this season - besides Pahal and Ernak, they also boast Parvesh Bhainswal and captain Sunil Kumar, numbers 16 and 20 respectively on the list of most tackle points (all time).
Naveen, though, showed off his presence of mind and research skills to end the game with 11 points.
Instead of easing into the match with bonus points, as is his wont, he tried to entice Ernak into tackle in his very first raid attempt, knowing fully well that Ernak is the kind of defender who wants to make an impact early. Having consigned Ernak to the bench with his very first raid, he then turned his sights on Pahal, a player who he had played with and learnt a lot from in the last two seasons, with a trademark running hand touch.
With their two vastly experienced corners sent to the bench early, Gujarat had to play catch up and Naveen then showed his versatility by getting a toe touch on Sunil. Naveen had gotten Sunil out seven times before this season and it would change to nine by the end of the match, even if Sunil was the only player to effect a successful tackle against Naveen on the evening.
'Complete raider' Naveen finally gets the better of Bhainswal
Well aware of his struggles against Bhainswal (who had tackled him five times in previous encounters), who plays as the left cover, which is generally a position that Naveen tends to target as a right raider, he instead chose to focus on the right side of defence in the first half. He exploited Pahal and Sunil's preference to play a high line of defence and well aware of Pahal's fondness for the double thigh hold, chose to play the waiting game on multiple occasions as Pahal attempted a premature tackle only for Naveen to evade him and jump over the thigh hold.
Naveen finally got the better of his nemesis Bhainswal with a stunning scorpion kick in the 18th minute to prove yet again that he's as close to complete as a raider can be. By then, he had executed the toe touch, running hand touch, jump as well as the scorpion kick successfully, all in just the first half.
Even as Delhi's veterans Manjeet and Jeeva kept gifting points to Gujarat with advanced tackles in front of the baulk line, Naveen almost singlehandedly kept Delhi ahead till he was finally tackled for the first time in the 31st minute.
Over the next five minutes, Gujarat took the lead before Naveen reentered the fray and drew them level with the very last raid of the match, which predictably ended with him evading yet another Pahal attempt at a double thigh hold.
Gujarat's vaunted defence had a poor night as Naveen was only tackled once in 24 raid attempts. In fact, Naveen has only been tackled four times in as many as 76 raids this season.
Naveen may have had 12 empty raids on the night but that ensured that he neutralized Gujarat's biggest strength as their defence could ony fetch five tackle points in the 40 minutes with the young raider having the last say yet again.