The Pro Kabaddi League (PKL) Season 9 saw one of the closest league phases ever, with 11 teams in contention to make the playoffs until the last couple of days.
Ultimately, Jaipur Pink Panthers, Puneri Paltan, Bengaluru Bulls, UP Yoddhas, Tamil Thalaivas and Dabang Delhi made it through to the playoffs, which begin in Mumbai on Tuesday.
There were some sensational individual performances throughout the league phase. A few new stars emerged, others kept their consistency going from last season, and some superstars proved that class is permanent.
ESPN picks the best players from the league phase:
Arjun Deshwal - Jaipur Pink Panthers
Consistency, thy name is Arjun Deshwal. The Jaipur Pink Panthers' star raider scored 17 Super 10s in the 22 matches that he played, and that put him atop the standings for the most raid points and the most points by any player during the league phase.
What made Deshwal's performance more special was that Jaipur's next best raider (V Ajith Kumar) had only 81 raid points throughout the season. Out of Jaipur's 487 raid points in the league stage, Deshwal picked up 286 of them. Talk about a one-man show.
With the team having two of the top five defenders of PKL 9 in Ankush Rathee and Sunil Kumar, it's not hard to see why Jaipur topped the league stage with 15 wins in 22 matches.
Bharat Hooda - Bengaluru Bulls
The emerging star of this season, Hooda has done most of the heavy-lifting in propelling Bengaluru to the playoffs.
This was always going to be a tricky season for the Bulls, having lost Pawan Sehrawat to Tamil Thalaivas before the auction. They hoped to plug that gap by adding Vikash Khandola at the auction, but their big-money purchase had a troubled season.
Up stepped Bharat. Like Deshwal, Bharat too accounted for more than half of his team's total raid points (257 out of 505).
His headline performance was a 23-point match against Dabang Delhi which the Bulls won 52-49. And guess who the Bulls are face in the eliminator?
Mohammedreza Shadloui Chiyaneh - Patna Pirates
The PKL's most successful team had a season to forget, finishing 10th and nine points behind sixth-placed Dabang Delhi. However, their mercurial Iranian once again proved why he is one of the league's best defenders.
Shadloui missed two games in the league stages, but still amassed more tackle points than anybody in the league.
The Pirates were the 10th-best team when it came to both raid points and tackle points, which underlined how much of a struggle this season was for them. Out of their 214 tackle points in 22 games, Shadloui accounted for 84 of them.
Maybe, just maybe, if he'd been available for those two games at the beginning of the season - when his entry to India was delayed due to visa problems - the Pirates could have fancied their chances of getting those additional two wins that would have put them in the playoffs.
Ankush Rathee - Jaipur Pink Panthers
Check out this highlight reel of #AnkushRathee's 5 tackles in last night's #FantasticPanga! ��#GGvJPP #PantherSquad #JaiHanuman #TopCats #JaipurPinkPanthers #JPP #Jaipur #vivoProKabaddi pic.twitter.com/HfVto6iM53
- Jaipur Pink Panthers (@JaipurPanthers) December 10, 2022
Another left corner defender who had a stellar season was Jaipur's Ankush Rathee. The youngster was left only behind Shadloui on the tackle points leaderboard after the league phase.
In a team that struggled to find raid points outside Deshwal, their defensive stability was always going to be crucial. Ankush's 81 tackle points and his general presence in defence played a massive part, as Jaipur look to win their first title since the inaugural edition of PKL.
Narendar Hoshiyar - Tamil Thalaivas
They have been the league's perennial under-achievers. They lost their star Pawan Sehrawat within the first few minutes in the opening game. A story all too familiar was unfolding for the Tamil Thalaivas.
But in Narendar Hoshiyar, they have unearthed a gem. Their first playoff appearance has been underlined by excellent team displays since Ashan Kumar has taken over as head coach, but singling out Narendar's raiding brilliance as the most important factor in their season so far wouldn't be amiss.
His 220 raid points places him as the fifth-best raider of PKL 9, but what makes this season special is the intangible pressure that he had to go through. Replacing Pawan is an unenviable task for anyone, let alone someone as young and untested as Narendar. But he took on the mantle of being the team's lead raider and didn't let them down. He will hope he has three more matches to make it an even more memorable season for his team.
Pardeep Narwal - UP Yoddhas
After a couple of disappointing seasons and a slow start to this one, one would have been forgiven for thinking that Pardeep Narwal's best days were behind him.
However, the PKL's greatest-ever raider turned back the years after another sluggish start to the season. He scored 10 Super 10s in 21 matches contributing to 208 raid points in the league stages is which still short of what Pardeep produced in his pomp when he was leading Patna Pirates to title after title.
But here he is again, the central figure in his team's entry to the playoffs. UP Yoddhas have never won the PKL title, but if they are to break the drought now, a lot will depend on Pardeep's form. After a season where he put away his favourite sweets and ghee, Pardeep is three wins away from earning those treats for himself and becoming a PKL champion again.