It's matchday minus one of the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL9). The captains of all the 12 teams are gathered in the lobby of a plush hotel in Bengaluru for a press conference.
You'd expect some cold-shouldering, a couple of stare downs...as is common in sporting rivalry. Kabaddi, though, is a different breed altogether. The lobby looks more like a locker room: there's banter all around, players snapping selfies...it's chaos. The good kind.
Naveen Kumar, who will captain defending champions Dabang Delhi, decides to try his hand at the piano. He sways his head vigorously [isn't that what tabla players do?] as he tries to belt out a tune, while being spurred on by Puneri Paltan's Aslam Inamdar.
"Guess what song I'm playing?" Naveen asks Aslam. He's clueless. A hotel guest seated on a sofa nearby gets it right: Sochenge tumhe pyaar kare ke nahi from Rishi Kapoor and Shah Rukh Khan's movie Deewana. A round of laughs and applause follow before a hotel employee requests Naveen to not play the piano.
By the way, Aslam is Puneri Paltan's representative today because their captain Fazel Atrachali isn't here yet. The Iranians will be missing the opening weekend of PKL9 due to visa issues.
Soon Rahul Chaudhari walks in, the old warhorse. Once known for his flair and flamboyance, he cut a sorry figure last campaign. However, he comes into this season on the back of leading Uttar Pradesh to the men's kabaddi title at the National Games and there are steep expectations of him. Wearing a pair of large headphones, he's not feeling particularly chatty. Looks like he wants his game to do all the talking.
Cut to the press conference and all 12 captains say the same thing in different phrases, "We have a very balanced team. We're here to win the title."
And you can't really blame them - most of them have had nothing to eat since morning. The players had their weigh-in before the presser. For the uninitiated, PKL's rules state that players have to weigh less than 85kgs on the weigh-in date to be eligible to play in the League.
Maninder Singh, one of the League's strongest players, and the captain of the Bengal Warriors couldn't wait to grab a bite. "Subah se kuch nahi khaya hai yaar! (I haven't had any food all day)," he laments, but finds the energy to do a couple of interviews.
The one man in the room commanding all the attention is Pawan Kumar Sehrawat. And for good reason - he is after all PKL's most-expensive player ever. Plus, he has the unenviable task of dragging Tamil Thalaivas out of their two-season rut.
He sports a smile throughout all the interviews and innumerable selfies. Surinder Singh, captain of U Mumba, then calls Pawan over for a picture with the trophy. "Pawan, you could have been wearing that orange jersey!" jokes one of the U Mumba staff and Pawan breaks into a laugh. U Mumba tried their best to sign Pawan and bid up to ₹2.25 crore, but Tamil Thalaivas beat them with a final bid of ₹2.26 crore. If only U Mumba had put in another bid...
As the crowd peters out and the players head back to their hotels for some much-deserved food and shuteye, Joginder Narwal remains seated in the lobby. The quintessential veteran. He captained Dabang Delhi to their maiden title last season and now has the same job briefing at Haryana Steelers. Fun fact, Haryana Steelers are coached by his former team-mate, Manpreet Singh.
"Main toh unko coach saab hi bulata hoon. Woh toh mere senior hain to izzat to dunga main (I call him coach because he's senior to me and I need to respect him)," he says when asked if he has a more casual equation with Manpreet.
At 40, he's the oldest member of the team by a fair margin. Most of Haryana Steelers' youngsters are his son Vinay Narwal's age. "Main toh unko apne bete ki tarah hi maanta hoon. Khoob saara masti hota hai (I treat the young players like my son, we have a ton of fun)," he says in earnest.
However, he hasn't had a chance to properly catch up with his son. Vinay is part of the Dabang Delhi roster and Joginder is making a conscious effort to not stay too close to him. "He plays for a different team and I don't want to influence him. We do the basic hi-hello, but do not talk about the game at all," he says. He met Vinay today after two and a half months.
It's 4 pm and U Mumba have just finished their final practice session ahead of tomorrow's opening game against Dabang Delhi. Meanwhile, the playing arena at the Sree Kanteerava indoor stadium is being readied. The seats are spotless (fans are back, yay!). Numerous mic checks ensue and the khel kabaddi tune blasts on the speakers. The red-blue-green-yellow strobe lights make you feel like you're in a game.
It's all falling into place. Pro Kabaddi is back.