Historically, Bengaluru Bulls have enjoyed playing their Eliminator 1 opponents UP Yoddha. In the eight matches the two teams have played against each other so far, Bengaluru have won five. But in the seventh season of the Pro Kabaddi, which enters the playoffs stage on 14 October, UP Yoddha have been the dominant side. In the first match of the season, UP won by a slender two-point margin. And, later, it increased to 12 points.
Under the new format, teams have to go through a double round-robin style. Teams that finished first (Dabang Delhi) and second (Bengal Warriors) have been sent straight into Semifinal 1 and Semifinal 2 respectively. That means UP Yoddha (third) face Bengaluru Bulls (sixth) in the first Eliminator followed by U Mumba (fourth) against Haryana Steelers (fifth). Winner of the two Eliminators will advance to Semifinal 1 and 2 for another go at a place in the summit clash.
With the minimal gap between games, stringing wins together is an important factor in progressing (and, maybe, winning) in the kabaddi league. UP Yoddha come into the playoffs on the back of nine wins out of 11 matches played, momentum being a crucial factor to their foray into the new format of the playoffs. Sumit and captain Nitesh Kumar have been central to this surge. They have been the best corner defensive duo this season with 72 tackle points for Sumit and 70 for Nitesh. No wonder then that UP Yoddha have 246 tackle points this season, the second most, and have an average of 11.18 tackle points.
If UP Yoddha can bank on their defence to keep them alive in stiff contests, it is their attack - especially in crunch situations - that has not delivered fully. UP Yoddha stand 11th in list of successful raids, 10th in terms of raid points with Shrikant Jadhav their most prolific raider with 139 points from 104 successful raids. Their main issue comes in the fag end of a game. UP have gone into the half time break trailing 3-plus points on five instances and have been unable to turn things around in each of them. The raiding quality dips significantly in the last 10 minutes which results in defeats.
"Beating the champions is perfect preparation for the playoffs, I believe. The team will feel a lot better ahead of the Eliminator against this very side. They will try to forget this game and will focus on the fact that they are the defending champions. It will be a completely different game," said Nitesh following UP Yoddha's 45-33 win at the Shaheed Vijay Singh Pathik Sports Complex in Greater Noida on Friday.
"The tough battle begins here, one mistake and we are out. The team has worked and prepared hard to ensure that we give our best against a strong offensive Bengaluru Bulls team. During the league stage, we won both games against Bengaluru Bulls which helps our confidence but this one is going to be the toughest and a win will take us into the semi-finals," he said on the eve of the Eliminator at the EKA Arena in Ahmedabad.
If UP Yoddha's worries concern their attack, Bengaluru Bulls' issues stem from the over-reliance on Pawan Sehrawat. One could see Pawan's performance on the mat as a positive or a reason to be concerned depending on the outlook. Sehrawat has 322 points this season (maximum) with 308 coming from raids. He has averaged 14 raid points per game and 74 percent strike rate on raids in Pro Kabaddi 7 - another maximum - to stand well and truly above the rest.
"The league stages were tough but it allowed us to study our opponents as we played them more than once. However, now that we are in a knock-out situation, we have to play to our strengths. We have a strategy in place against UP Yoddha's strong defensive squad and we will do our best to ensure we retain the title," he said on Sunday.
Where UP Yoddha have been disappointing, Bulls have flourished. Bengaluru have trailed at half time by a 3-plus point margin in seven games and have gone on to overturn the deficit to win three. This makes it a success rate of 43 percent - no other team has managed as many come from behind wins.
Sehrawat picked Super 10s in both matches against UP Yoddha. He has been restricted to just eight points in the second half in two games while remaining scoreless in the third quarter. Nitesh and Sumit have shared the responsibility of containing him with four tackles each. Clearly, Pawan has been unable to recreate his magic against UP.
Pawan has contributed 65 percent of Bengaluru's raid points with only Pardeep Narwal more dominant in the attack. After Sehrawat, Rohit Kumar has given Bengaluru a slight glimmer of hope when going for the attack but it has been far too erratic. It doesn't help that he picked up an injury recently and is looking an uncertainty for the playoffs.
The Eliminator 1 between Bengaluru Bulls and UP Yoddhas will be shown LIVE on Star Sports Network from 7:30 PM IST