THE PRO KABADDI final just took place, and for the first time, U Mumba were not a part of it.
After making it into the Sunday-night grand event for the first 3 seasons, this time the Mumbai team appeared to be struggling to live up to their reputation as the most consistent team ever in PKL. Early on, a couple of heavy losses proved to be their undoing and they failed to make it into the semi-finals by a whisker.
The fans are heartbroken, and the Indian kabaddi circuit is ripe with speculation on whether or not this is the end of the golden chapter of U Mumba. But the team's captain, and national team legend Anup Kumar is not ready to give up hope so easily after one season's under-performance. Speaking to TFG, the Arjuna awardee said the team was determined to bounce back,
"We played 3 seasons with the same team. The combination was set and everybody knew what to do. This time we had a new team so it took time to get adjusted to things. This happened not just to us but to others as well. But overall we didn't play bad, many of the losses were close contests. We can build on this performance and come back better than ever."
For U Mumba, this season was defined by close contests. Multiple crucial matches, including ones against eventual finalists Patna Pirates and Jaipur Pink Panthers, were very close and decided in the last minute. As captain, Anup faced that pressure cooker crunch every night as the team tried hard to tilt the balance of the game in their favour. Asked what he told the players in those situations, he said,
"I only tell them to give their best. If you do your job well on the mat nothing can stop you from succeeding. Just reminding the players what to do and what's at stake is enough to motivate them to fight for a win."
Many have pointed out the way teams have lost their rhythm while playing four back to back games at home. Even U Mumba, who previously had an unbeaten home record, dropped some crucial points at home this season and that contributed to their failure to make the playoffs. But Anup Kumar said he didn't think home games were a problem in terms of fitness or stress,
"I don't see a problem with the format. If you're fit you can play six nights in a row. And the presence of home fans boosts your morale. So it's perfectly fine to carry on with this kind of fixture at the Pro Kabaddi League."
A national team veteran since 2006, Anup has represented India in the 2010 and 2014 Asian Games, winning gold on both occasions. Looking back on his illustrious career, Anup felt the highlight was his first gold at the Asiad,
"The most memorable occasion was winning the gold medal at the 2010 Asian Games. It was my first gold at the Asiad and it was a special day in my career."
A 32 year old veteran, Anup Kumar's career is far from over. And once the Kabaddi World Cup comes around in October he will play a crucial role in the Indian national team's quest for world domination.
But having been a part of the scene for so long, Anup said he could see palpable and positive changes happening to the way the sport was run in this country,
"Many things have changed since the arrival of Pro Kabaddi League. A huge number of kabaddi academies have come up across the country. And some of them are run by the former national team players, so the quality is top-notch. That's in addition to the improvements made in the facilites at government-run academies and institutions. I think if we can keep these academies running properly they will form a natural outlet for the next generation players to come forward."
With the competition ever increasing in the international front, Anup's words echoed a sentiment that many players share: to retain India's status as the world's best nation in kabaddi, the upcoming batch of players has to be better than ever, and the influence of Pro Kabaddi is likely to play a central role in making that happen.