ROAD TO PLAY-OFFS: HARYANA COACH KHOKHAR REVIEWS DEBUT SEASON AHEAD OF ELIMINATOR CLASH
Arguably the most anticipated debutants of the biggest edition of the Pro Kabaddi League, Haryana Steelers have been among the teams who have hit conversations among fans, commentators and critics. In July, a brand new side, mostly comprising talents from Haryana and coached by Ranbir Singh Khokhar, arrived on the stage.
The Steelers’ first game against U Mumba ended in a loss by the narrowest margin of one point but it did not take Surender Nada and his men to pick up momentum and hit a winning streak. Eventually, by a little after mid-October, Haryana concluded the league stage with a comfortable play-offs qualification and a season record of six wins in a row. With 13 wins and four ties overall, the blue jerseys earned a reputation of being fighters alongwith the best defenders among all.
From letting big leads slip to overcoming seemingly unassailable leads in the last quarter of the game, the Haryana team has faced a lot of challenges through their campaign. Among the more cherished victories came against the formidable Gujarat Fortunegiants and a six point and four point beating of hosts Bengal and UP respectively. Every tie and loss made the team richer with experience, Coach Khokhar says.
“We have had a very challenging journey so far and I am happy that we have had it tough, because the challenge only gets bigger from here. Of course, we wanted to win every game, but for us the losses were just as important – our comebacks immediately after those have been commendable. My biggest takeaway from our journey would be our spirit of never giving up. If you look at our track record, we have never let any oppponent defeat us thrice in the zone – be it U Mumba or Puneri Paltan (who defeated Haryana twice). We have lost only one inter-zone game and we have not let any of the Zone toppers beat us. It sums up how strong we have been throughout”, opined Khokhar.
Khokhar also believes that it was the relationship between the players off the mat that helped the team perform. “The team has been together for four months now. When you spend so much time together, it shows on the mat. The players know each other better, understand and communicate better, which helps them bring that level of coordination on the mat. We have boys from different states in the team, but because the team was so fine-tuned in terms of discipline, communication between them never became an issue.”
One of the biggest advantages for Haryana this season has been the depth of their squad. The seniors as well as the younger players have been able to deliver match-winning performances, helping the team record the winning streak when it mattered most. “When we went into the auction, our aim was to have a blend of young and senior players. With the season stretching for three months, we needed a squad that could sustain the physical challenges of the season. Be it Surender or Mohit (Chhillar) who have played all five seasons, or Kuldeep (Singh) and Vikas (Kumar) – everyone is capable of making the team win. Whenever someone was having an off day we had someone else on the bench to fill–in. It is only because of such depth in our squad that we have reached so far” added Khokhar.
Tracing back to the first match against U Mumba, Khokhar reiterates that from that day till the match against Jaipur where the team stamped its arrival in the Play-Offs, he never stopped believing that the team would make it thus far. “We started with a loss but I saw a fight and a lot of heart from each of the boys. I knew from that day that we were only going upwards. Yes, we suffered a few setbacks but the boys never gave up. Surender led from the front and he and Wazir together have brought us so far. Now is a different ball game altogether though, we need to work harder than we did in all our matches put together.”
Wary of the challenge ahead, Khokhar also emphasized on the importance of keeping calm and taking one game at a time. “Our next game against Patna will be an eliminator, which means we will only get one shot at moving ahead. Though the results will depend on performances of the day, I feel the team which will be mentally stronger will have an added advantage. In our last game against Patna we had tied and that was because Prashanth had taken charge of the situation and had remained calm. Even in our eliminator clash against Patna, we need not get overwhelmed irrespective of how the game proceeds. It will be a tough challenge, but knowing this team, I am confident that we will not let this opportunity slip off our hands,” concluded Khokhar.
Placed third in Zone A, Haryana Steelers will now face Patna Pirates on 23rd October at the DOME @ NSCI in Mumbai.
- Impenetrable Defence:
Haryana Steelers, armed with the most lethal corner combination of the tournament – Surender Nada and Mohit Chhillar – have been a nightmare for the opposing raiders. With 224 out of their 697 points, earned solely through tackles, the team has an average of 10.18 tackle points per match, third best of the season.
- Do or Die Specialist:
The Steelers stand second in the race of Do-or-Die raid points second only to the Puneri Paltan with 102 points to their name. Their best Do or Die Raider Deepak Kumar Dahiya has 39 Do or Die raid points to his name.
- Captain Marvel:
Surender Nada has lead the team from the front leading the stats for the best defender this season. Nada has a record 9 high-fives this season and also leads the Tackle Points Leaderboard with 79 points to his name
- The Cover Combination:
Haryana, though sorted in its corner combination, has had troubles with their cover. Having tried out different combinations between Rakesh Singh Kumar, Neeraj Kumar, Parmod Narwal and Babu, the cover has been a cause for concern for the Steelers in the last few games.
- The Return of Vikash Kandola:
One of Haryana’s best players looking to make a mark in the Play-Offs will be the young Vikash Kandola. Having missed over half the season due to an ankle injury, the SAI prodigy will look to make amends against the Pirates in their clash. Vikash currently has 52 raid points from just 8 matches.
- Squad Depth:
Be it raiding or defending, the Steelers have match winners in abundance. Having successfully tested almost all players in the squad, the team has no ‘second string’ side, with all the players showing match-winning potential.
- Dealing with the mental Pressure:
The match will have a lot riding on it for a team that is making a debut this season. With a chance to etch their name on the trophy, the team will have to brave the pressure of the occasion.