Ever since the first season of the Pro Kabaddi League, back in 2014, organisers have been working on ways to keep the audience hooked, and coming back for more. The concept itself, of a rustic sport evolving into glitzy pulsating entertainment, had struck a chord. So much so that the second season — often considered the true test of any marquee event’s success — turned to be an edition even more popular than the first.
Yet in that perennial search for the right formula — just like the Indian Premier League (IPL) had found its own format — PKL has been undergoing constant change. For the fifth season, the tournament expanded, both in terms of participating teams and duration. The original eight franchises were accompanied by the addition of four new teams — Gujarat Fortunegiants, Tamil Thalaivas, UP Yoddha and Haryana Steelers.
More crucial though has been the tournament’s transformation from being a six-week marvel — packed with high-caliber entertainment — to a gruelling 13-week slugfest. For all the intentions of creating a product that remains in a prime-time broadcast for a long period of time, the three-month league only ended up diluting the excitement.
A longer PKL means a better payday for the players and the fact that they get to stay in the limelight for more time. But there is a flipside to it since it’s such a physical sport.
Most of the players are not used to a non-stop three-month league. The cracks had begun to show early on as big-name players began reeling under the physical pressure. The harsh nature of the game — a full-blooded contact sport with crunching tackles and quick-witted evasive maneuvers — needs to be considered.
Recovery between matches had been a pressing issue from the first season itself, particularly for a host team in the caravan system the league follows. Earlier, the home team would play four matches on consecutive days. Now each franchise has to play six matches over seven days.
U Mumba in particular, a team that had reached the final of the first three editions and were champions of the second season, struggled as key defenders, Joginder Narwal and D Suresh Kumar, were forced out of the tournament early and the squad had to make use of several inexperienced players to make the team. The anarchy in the ranks was apparent and the team struggled to weave even two wins in a row. Even Jaipur Pink Panthers’ most expensive buys — Manjeet Chhillar and Selvamani K — were sidelined for a chunk of the event with injuries.
Though each team was allowed a larger roster, a maximum of 25 players, a great number of fringe players were being pushed into the limelight prematurely. There were a few youngsters, namely Sachin Tanwar and Vishal Bhardwaj — who left a mark on the game, but most were left finding their feet, their mistakes amplified on multiple cameras.
While raiders are lone rangers, defenders usually rely on team work, and the defensive lapses through the season were alarming. It became especially apparent during do-or-die raids, where the onus is on the raider to tag. But a number of times defenders would charge at them mindlessly, giving away crucial points.
So weak was the defensive performance by teams that a raiding record that had been set in season two had been broken three times. Kashiling Adake, then a star player for Dabang Delhi had scored 24 points in a match to set the record. In this season, UP Yoddha’s Rishank Devadiga took the tally to 28, before Rohit Kumar set it at 32. Pardeep eventually took it up to 34 during the second eliminator against Haryana Steelers.
Losing finalists Gujarat Fortunegiants in turn, were the only team to have taken up a strong defensive structure. Yet that too was based more on the skill and camaraderie of Iranian defenders Abozar Mighani and Fazel Atrachali. The pair alone notched 122 successful tackles, just over half of the 242 their team had amassed in total.
The auction conducted before the season reshuffled the pack, and the big-name players were scattered and the talent was spread out thin. India, as seen in the past PKL editions and last year’s Kabaddi World Cup, has a wealth of talent but not all of them seemed ready for the big-show business. Cricket is by far the sport where the country’s reserves run deepest. And even the IPL, which also has marquee foreign names, has not extended beyond the eight teams.
There is still uncertainty over how frequently the player auctions will happen. The constant reshuffling has meant that teams have not been able to form a core group — for this season teams were allowed to retain only one player. It has kept the owners from investing to build an ‘icon’ player, the face of the franchise, or create player and team rivalries. Of the bunch of marquee players from the first season only U Mumba’s Anup Kumar has not hopped teams.
Early on, the TRPs claimed to have overtaken those of cricket. Audience fatigue is a very real danger in most sports, even more so now given the number of games and channels jostling for attention. Three months at a stretch, six days of the week would seem excessive for most sports.
With the League doing so well in such a short time, there is an obvious effort to cash in on the popularity. But the organisers’ relentless experimentation, which peaked at the confusing six-team qualifier/eliminator play-offs, means neither fans nor franchises have been able to settle into a groove. More so, by stretching it to a three-month League, they run the risk of diluting the intensity, and in turn, dulling a sport that had begun with great promise.