The Pro Kabaddi League returned to our screens in December 2021 after a two-year hiatus and it made up for all the lost time in style. Despite a mini-outbreak of COVID-19, the 12 teams and league pulled through to deliver one of its most exciting iterations yet. We saw the closest league-stage finish a PKL season has ever had, with four of the six playoff spots being decided in the final two days. In fact, the last team was decided after the very last match (#132). We saw plenty of narratives (Pardeep Narwal vs Patna Pirates, in a semifinal), heartbreak (Patna, so consistent, losing the final), redemption (Naveen's smile replacing his tears as the defining image of a PKL final) and everything in between. Here's our review:
Best player - Mohammadreza Chiyaneh Shadloui
10 super fives - the first time anyone has ever done that in a single PKL season. 86 successful tackles - 12 more than anyone else this season. The best defender in the league, playing for the best defensive unit in the land. And all that in his debut PKL season. He may not have had the best of finals, but we must not let that detract from the previous 23 games, where he was simply excellent.
Best player (Honourable mention) - Naveen Kumar
Picked up a knock mid-season that ought to have slowed him down. Missed six games, but returned with a bandage and the same ol' vigour. Remained faster, and more effective than anyone else on the mat. Avenged his loss in the final last season in style. One of the best raiders in the sport, if not the best. And now, deservedly champion of India.
Best single-handed effort to keep a team relevant - Pawan Kumar Sehrawat
Scored 320 points, including 18 super 10s, and single-handedly kept an underwhelming Bengaluru Bulls team relevant through the league stages and the playoffs. Sample this run of games for instance - in the last match of the league stage he scored 20 points in a must-win against direct playoff contenders Haryana Steelers, 12 more than anyone else on either side. Then, in the eliminator against the Gujarat Giants, he top-scored with 13. In the semifinal loss to Dabang Delhi KC, he top-scored with 18. He was truly incredible.
Most improved unit (from last season) - Patna Pirates
Patna were eighth last season, 13 points off the playoff spots. They finished the league stage first, 11 points ahead of Delhi in second. No one has ever had a bigger margin at the end of a PKL league stage. And all this despite losing the PKL GOAT that is Pardeep Narwal to UP Yoddha. Ram Mehar Singh rebuilt his team, fashioning them into a snarling defensive machine that found true strength in the collective.
Most improved unit (mid-season) - Puneri Paltan
These pages gave Puneri Paltan an 'E' mid-season and for good reason. Veterans Rahul Chaudhari and Nitin Tomar were "shadows of the players they used to be." So, coach Anup Kumar shook things up at the halfway stage. He made Aslam Inamdar lead raider, and gave equal responsibility to Mohit Goyat (who was arguably the best young player of the season). He relegated Chaudhari to the bench. And the youngsters delivered. In the second half of the season, they shot up the table and won a place in the playoffs on the very last day, beating Jaipur Pink Panthers 37-30 in what was essentially a straight shoot-out. We can, and should, expect more next season.
Most goosebump-inducing moment - Pardeep Narwal vs Puneri Paltan
Pardeep Narwal was only the sixth highest scoring raider in the league this season, and that's terribly low for a player who has set impossible standards over the past few seasons. He flitted in and out of matches... till the eliminator vs Puneri Paltan. The match score was at 12-12, and Pardeep had scored just one point in 16 minutes. Then, on his next raid, he slipped. What followed was four seconds of Pardeep Narwal reminding everyone of his 'GOATness'. A leap backwards, a fall, two twists, and he'd returned with 5 points. Hello, hairs on the back of the neck.
Team with the most promise in the bottom half - Tamil Thalaivas
PKL 8 saw more tied games than any other season (We've explored that in detail here.) Of all the teams involved, the Tamil Thalaivas were the biggest culprits tying 6 of their 22 matches. They lost 11, but most of them were narrow defeats, a result of their inexperience in holding on to leads and closing out games. The Thalaivas offence was all over the place, but their defence was brilliant. Sagar, in just his second season at this level, finished with 82 tackle points, only seven behind leader Chiyaneh (having played two games fewer, remember). A second-from-bottom finish would have been painful and they were a tad unlucky to end up there. Now, there's much to look forward to for next season - the promise this young squad holds should be a source for hope.
Team most thankful for non-existence of relegation - Telugu Titans
22 matches. 27 points. 17 losses. 4 ties. 1 win. A score difference of -130. The Telugu Titans will really want to forget this season ever happened.