For the first time in four seasons, the Patna Pirates and Pardeep Narwal are looking vulnerable.
The team in green dominated the Pro Kabaddi League in the past three seasons, winning three titles on the trot. And Narwal had been the tour de force behind it. The quicksilver raider, known for the 'dubki', had earned them raid points at will to steer them past every other team.
But neither Narwal nor the Pirates have truly taken off this season. Their home leg, at the Patliputra Indoor Stadium, was expected to provide them with the impetus, but Patna managed to win only two of their six matches this week. Moreover, during the match against Bengaluru, Narwal picked up a wrist injury and wasn't able to do much damage. He sat out in the last game, when the hosts scored a narrow 29-27 win over Bengal Warriors.
The home ground of Narwal, though, provided as an apt battleground for raiders through the week. The action-packed leg saw some high-scoring games. While Season 6 standouts Nitin Tomar and Siddharth Desai continued their scoring streaks, it also saw Telugu Titans talisman Rahul Chaudhari and Sachin Tanwar of the Gujarat Fortunegiants get back to their devastating best.
The Titans had been humbled by U Mumba in the previous match in Pune. Though Chaudhari became the first player to reach a milestone of 700 raid points in that game, he had been held back by a strong U Mumba defence. His own team sorely missed the services of Abozar Mighani, who has once again held down that right corner with incredible strength.
With Abozar back in the team in the game against Patna, the Telugu Titans offence had the permission to go full throttle against the hosts. Chaudhari used that freedom to plunder 17 raid points, from 23 raids, and lead his team to a morale-boosting 53-32 win. In the battle of the PKL's most famous raiders, Narwal finished second best. In fact, he wasn't even the best raider from his team on the day. Vikas Jaglan earned nine raid points for them while Narwal could only find four from nine raids. With Vishal Bhardwaj locking down the left corner, and Abozar on the right, there weren't too many weaknesses for Narwal to exploit.
Gujarat Fortunegiants, who reached the final on their debut last season, have played only five matches so far but they have performed well. Their leading player, Sachin, truly came alive in the two matches in Patna. The tall raider got his first Super 10 of the season during his team's 36-25 win over the experienced Tamil Thalaivas. He followed it up with another Super 10 show to defeat the team in form, Puneri Paltan, 37-27. Even though Pune has one of the best defensive units in the League, the Gujarat raider was able to pick up 10 points and power his team to a comprehensive win.
After five matches, Gujarat are placed third in Zone A with 19 points. It's the teams from Maharashtra, however, who continue to rule the roost in that group. Though Pune lost to Gujarat, they bounced back with a 31-27 victory over Dabang Delhi, that too without the services of Tomar. Gujarat lead Zone A with 37 points from 12 matches, while U Mumba are second with 29 points from seven games.
Another young raider making waves is Bengaluru Bulls' Pawan Kumar Sehrawat. The 22-year-old leap-frogging over the Patna's defence and tumbling his way to safety remains the most abiding memory of the week. He always had the athleticism to set the stage alight, but Sehrawat is also bringing consistency into the mix this season.
With the experienced Kashiling Adake and Rohit Kumar sharing raiding duties with him, he has the freedom to be flamboyant. In the thriller against Patna, Sehrawat earned 14 points in 14 raid attempts to help his team to a 43-41 victory.
"This was probably the only thing we lacked last season," Rohit Kumar said in Patna. "Me, Pawan and Kashiling Adake are sharing the burden amongst ourselves and it really helps when there are two quality raiders backing you up on the mat. It enables me to rest and gather myself."
While most raiders flexed their muscle, the MVP from the past three seasons, Pardeep Narwal just couldn't do enough to drag his team across the finish line. In front of their home fans, Patna succumbed to four defeats in a row before beating Bengal in the last game.
Though Narwal has done exceedingly well domestically, his international failures have given defenders a ray of hope. His battle against U Mumba's Iranian captain Fazel Atrachali was intriguing, with both the players taking equal blows to the body and ego. Though Narwal got 17 points in the game, U Mumba were just a shade better " only one point separated the two teams.
The silver lining for Patna, meanwhile, was the performances of defender Jaideep and young raider Manjeet. The lanky Manjeet has the reach and the wingspan to do lot of damage, as he showed in the match against Bengaluru where he got 10 raid points.
Left corner Jaideep was handed over the captaincy in the team's last game against Bengal and he did a superb job. Though he doesn't have the support of the soundest of defences in the League, Jaideep kept a check on Bengal's Jang-Kun Lee and Mahesh Goud. He earned five tackle points that saw him rise to the top of the defenders' leaderboard. Jaideep now has 33 tackle points in 10 matches, while Pune captain Girish Ernak is second with 31 points from as many matches.
The win over Bengal also saw Patna jump to the top of Zone B. But that's mainly because they have played the most matches in their group. Patna have 23 points from 10 matches, while Bengaluru have 21 from only five.