Puneri Paltan, with an average squad age of 21, have become the first team to progress to the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL 9) playoffs. Led by Fazel Atrachali, Paltan have qualified for the knockout with four games in hand and will look to remain atop the table, which would award them a direct spot in the semifinal.
What did Puneri Paltan do differently?
Their youth-oriented approach is what sets them apart. They've used their academy - Yuva Paltan - to unearth young talents and have then incorporated them into the senior team. Aslam Inamdar, Mohit Goyat and Akash Shinde - the three young men who've played pivotal roles this season - have all come from the academy.
The team scouts for these talents during the off-season at events such as the junior nationals and then moulds them for PKL. 100/100 for the approach.
Is this Puneri Paltan's best season yet?
In terms of points, they're set for their best season in PKL. They've already got 69 points from 18 games, which is more than the 66 they managed in 22 matches last season. Their best tally so far came in season five when they scored 80 points in 22 games. With four games in hand, they're well-poised to better that this time around.
Why have they been so good in PKL 9?
Fazel's captaincy has made all the difference.
The team looked disjointed when Fazel missed the first two games due to visa issues. Once he was back, the team regained momentum, had a few close games, before becoming the behemoth it is today.
Fazel's impact on this young squad has been massive - he motivates them to play without the fear of getting caught out and doesn't admonish them when they err. "My job as a captain is to listen to my players. Sometimes he may notice something different or know a player better and tell me what we can do," he had said earlier in the season. He's receptive to ideas, lets the young ones voice their opinions and empowers them.
Above all of that, he controls the mat from his left corner position and remains among the top 10 defenders in PKL 9.
What about their bench strength?
The best in PKL 9. Coach BC Ramesh is pampered with a plethora of options. Is Aslam injured? No worries, Mohit can take over raiding duties. Need a support raider? Akash comes off the bench to perfectly fit into that role. Another option? Pankaj Mohite. Need a wildcard, who teams know little to nothing about? Aditya Shinde.
And that is just the raiding unit.
Looking for defensive options? You've got Badal Singh (left corner) and Gaurav Khatri (right corner) as able options. Oh, and the Iranian powerhouse Mohammad Esmaeil Nabibakhsh.
That's been the beauty of their campaign, they've got alternatives in each position and there have been no major injuries. *touch wood*
What's next for Puneri Paltan?
Fazel, after their win over Telugu Titans on Saturday, said their upcoming games are like "friendly matches" considering they've already qualified. He says the team will use their remaining four league stage matches to experiment and maybe even give a few fresh faces some quality game time. "We'll look to give our uncapped players a chance in our remaining games and that will motivate them going forward," said coach Ramesh.