“Today none of our players played well. In fact, our performance was below average. We were behind and playing catch-up from minute one. It was a complete failure.” These were the words of a deflated U Mumba captain Anup Kumar who was resigned to the reality of the situation like never before. His team were battered for the entirety of 40 minutes by Puneri Paltan in a 21-33 defeat. For every step forward U Mumba took, Pune responded by taking two in no time.
In the second season of Pro Kabaddi League, a reserve U Mumba side had comfortably beaten Puneri Paltan to make it four wins out of four. In the next campaign, Pune had a much stronger team and had beaten almost everyone apart from U Mumba, who defeated them in two close games despite trailing for the most part in the second one. It was only in Season 4 that Pune, when had a better outfit than Mumbai, registered their first win over their Maharashtra rivals. Despite the gulf in quality, the struggling Mumbai side which failed to make the play-offs also, managed to get one over Pune in the second game.
Having made a habit of putting opposition teams — so often Pune — to the sword over the past four seasons, U Mumba were at the receiving end of a rampaging and ruthless Puneri Paltan, who at one point on Friday threatened to run riot. One would usually associate this with the Mumbai outfit where a cohesive defensive unit brings down famed raiders at will, as their own raiders pluck away points from the other end, to leave the opposition teams in total disarray.
On Friday, it wasn’t the case. In fact Puneri Paltan, who were once U Mumba’s favourite victims, gave them a taste of their own medicine.
Unlike U Mumba, who were dependent on their raiders to win them the game despite their weak defence, Puneri Paltan had a balanced side with threats emerging from all parts of the mat. Possessing a good blend of all-rounders, they had more players with defensive capabilities to stop the much-fancied U Mumba attack.
Before the season began, Mumbai coach Bhaskaran Edachery had said he wanted the quartet of Anup, Kashiling Adake, Shabeer Bapu and Nitin Madane — all four specialist raiders — to lead the charge for the team by continuously winning points on their raids so that their defence doesn’t feel the pressure to score points.
But Pune had other ideas. They knew keeping the U Mumba raiders quiet was a sure-shot route to victory as it would allow their raiders to put severe pressure on the Mumbai defence and force mistakes out of them. As the game panned out, they did exactly that.
“We have three pure defenders in our side, and Deepak (Hooda) and Sandeep (Narwal) are all-rounders. This meant we had enough players with good defensive abilities on the mat. We wanted to make full use of it. The plan was to attack the raiders, before they threatened us,” Puneri Paltan coach BC Ramesh explained after the game.
Pune’s defence hunted in packs. Their movement and coordination on the mat was seamless. They allowed the Mumbai raiders to score just 11 raid points. However, the glaring statistic was that out of those 11, only six were touch points. The rest were bonuses that the Pune team offered the U Mumba raiders once they established a healthy lead. This showed the extent to which the Pune defence dominated the U Mumba raiders.
In the first half, Pune had a 100 percent success rate in tackles, winning all eight that they made. The Mumbai raiders were never given any time to get into the groove. By the interval, Pune’s defence had all the momentum.
Apart from Anup, who scored five raid points, other top raiders like Adake and Bapu failed miserably. The former scored just one point in seven raids while the latter secured two in 12. Although Pune couldn’t maintain their 100 percent tackle success rate till the end of the game, they made 15 successful tackles at staggering strike rate of 78.94.
U Mumba’s defensive numbers were a stark contrast. They scored just seven tackle points, three out of which came from Anup, who is primarily a raider. Joginder Narwal, Hadi Oshtorak and Kuldeep Singh, who were supposed to bear the responsibility of the defensive department made just three successful tackles in 11 matches.
It appeared that the Puneri Paltan team had been playing together for weeks before the match in contrast to U Mumba, who looked like a squad assembled just minutes before the start.
“Sandeep (Narwal) and I, Dharmaraj (Cheralathan) and (Rajesh) Mondal all of us have played a lot of kabaddi together. We spend a lot of time together in national camps, so we know each other’s game. For us it was easy to combine,” Pune’s captain Deepak Hooda said after the game.
“What was key for us today that even our raiders like Mondal and More were involved while defending. They also scored some points in defence. So that’s why you saw such a good display from us. It was a complete team effort,” he added.
Sandeep was the star for Pune on the evening, as his lethal combination of energy and aggression pegged Mumbai back. Scoring six points, he made sure Anup didn’t carry U Mumba out of danger all on his own. He dismissed Anup twice in the match, and his presence meant there was no escape route for their rivals. The former Patna Pirates star was also handy during the raids, scoring two points and maintaining the pressure on Mumbai’s defence.
Talking of Pune’s out-and-out defenders, their scores made a pretty reading. Cheralathan scored four, Girish Ernak and Ravi Kumar scored three each. It showed how Pune hunted as a team, rather than the points coming just because of one man’s heroics.
Even youngster More, who was selected ahead of Rohit Kumar Choudhari, did a fine job. He got points from crucial raids and didn’t allow Mumbai to target him.
So after years of getting trounced, Puneri Paltan turned the tables on U Mumba. While the result leaves plenty to ponder for Anup Kumar and Co, it puts Pune in a great frame of mind ahead of the future matches.
“There is more to come from us. Expect our defence to this in every game of the season. There will be no letting up,” warned Hooda as he walked away. If what he said actually transpires, expect this marauding Puneri Paltan side to go all the way, just like how U Mumba have in, what one must say, were their heyday.