Why did PKL season 8 see a record number of tied matches?

Dabang Delhi K.C. defender Joginder Narwal attempts an ankle hold on Telugu Titans raider Hyunsu Park PKL

After three months locked in a bio bubble, Abhishek Singh, star raider for U Mumba in the Pro Kabaddi League, is finally back with his family in Bulandshahar, Uttar Pradesh. It might not be in the manner he would have wanted though. Singh had an impressive individual outing - he was the fourth most successful raider this season - but it still wasn't enough as his team finished tenth in the 12-team league and failed to make the playoffs featuring the top six sides. "We finished 10th but it was a lot closer than that. There were so many matches we could have won," says Singh.

Indeed, the league stage of this edition was perhaps the closest in the five-year history of the PKL, with only one side assured of qualification before the last couple rounds of matches. "You can see just how close the league phase has been by the number of matches that ended in ties," says Joginder Narwal, captain of the Dabang Delhi K.C., who made the playoffs.

Drawn matches are relatively common in low-scoring sports like football and hockey, but less so in high-scoring matches like kabaddi where double digit scores are the norm. In the first season that the PKL moved to a 12-team league (2017), 16 matches had ended in a tie. However in every subsequent season the number of tied games reduced - 14 matches in the sixth season and a low of 13 in the seventh in 2019-20.

In the current edition though, a record 19 games ended with scores level and teams taking back 3 points each rather than 5 for a win. Of the 12 teams, Tamil Thalaivas (6) and U Mumba (5) finished with the most numbers of ties, and ended second and third from bottom in the points table.

"Nearly every match has been neck-and-neck this season. That's the reason there are a lot more tied games," says Ram Mehar Singh, coach of the Patna Pirates side that topped the league stage. "Look at Tamil Thalaivas - they had the best tackler (Sagar with 82 points) but they had the also had the most tied games (6) and finished second last," he explains.

Close matches connected to pandemic-forced break

Joginder Narwal believes that league resuming after a two-year break owing to COVID-19 also contributed to the relative parity between the sides. "Normally when we play in the PKL, we are coming into the end of the season. We have been playing matches at the department and other levels. By that time we get to the PKL, the body is already breaking down. But this time there were no matches. So everyone was able to push themselves really hard," he says.

The fact that the teams were as evenly matched as they were meant that, at least initially, teams were wary about pushing themselves for a win at the risk of losing outright. "At the start of the league, all teams preferred to be safe because the competition is so close. If the competition is close, you realise every point is crucial. As a player you would prefer to get to 3 than be reduced to 1," says Narwal.

Safety-first approach

Indeed, unlike previous seasons, the vast majority of tied matches occurred at the start of the league. All six of Tamil Thalaivas' tied games were in their first 12 matches while all five of U Mumba's ties came by their 11th game. In contrast the final tied game in the fifth season of the PKL came on the last day of the league phase. "Because the league was starting after so long, no team wanted to lose matches," says Abhishek Singh.

With teams erring on the side of caution, even individual plays were made keeping the possibility of a tied match in mind. In their third match of the season which ended in a 24-24 draw with Gujarat Giants, Delhi were trailing by a single point on their final raid of the match. "Our raider Naveen had no choice but to try and get a point. Their defender (and captain) Sunil Kumar made a tackle on him. But none of his teammates came to his support. Because they knew that if Naveen did get back, a single tackle would mean the match ended in a draw. But if two raiders made the tackle and Naveen got back then they would have lost the match," says Narwal.

Not every team though went with a safety first approach. Ram Mehar Singh said that after the strategy backfired, Patna Pirates chose instead to go for a win every time they were placed in a similar situation.

"In our second match of the season against UP Yoddha, we were behind by one point and needed to make a tackle that we were confident of making. But because we were focusing on just making the tackle, we let the raider get a bonus point (by stepping into the bonus point zone before making the tackle). Because of that we lost the match by one point. After that we made the decision to chase a win in every subsequent match," says Singh, whose side ended up with just a single tied match in the season.

A change is needed?

While the league started with a flurry of tied games, earning full points for the win became steadily more important as the season progressed and the number of drawn matches dried up. In Pirates' last match of the season against Haryana Steelers, both teams were neck and neck until the final minute of the match. Then in an attempt to tag multiple defenders and seal the win, the Steelers raider was pinned with his side losing by a narrow 30-27 margin.

According to Ram Mehar Singh, a change is needed if the aim is to increase the number of outright results. "If you have three points for a tie, a lot of teams will probably settle for one. But if you give fewer points for a tie, more teams will be tempted to go for a win even at the risk of having a draw. That would make a difference," he says.