"Pardeep Narwal was always our No.1 pick" - UP Yoddha CEO on ₹1.65 Crore bid for star raider at Pro Kabaddi 2021 auction

Pardeep Narwal in action during a UP Yoddha training session ahead of Pro Kabaddi 2021
Pardeep Narwal in action during a UP Yoddha training session ahead of Pro Kabaddi 2021
Prasen Moudgal

In the rich history of the Pro Kabaddi League, no player has ever grabbed the attention of sports-lovers much like Pardeep Narwal, the first and only raider to cross 1000 raid points in the PKL.

Pardeep's jaw-dropping performances in Pro Kabaddi have turned heads and left the best of defenders pulling out their hair in frustration, and so it was no surprise that the 'Dubki King' was the star attraction at the Pro Kabaddi Auction 2021.

In what was only his maiden appearance in a PKL auction following a bitter-sweet release by the Patna Pirates, the three-time PKL winner was bound to pocket a massive contract. On the day of the auction, it was only a matter of which team was to break the bank to sign the services of Pro Kabaddi League's top raider.

Unsurprisingly, Pardeep was the most sought-after Pro Kabaddi star, with the UP Yoddha shelling out close to 30% of their total purse to sign the dynamic raider for a whopping sum of ₹1.65 Crore.

While the 'all-it-takes' approach to rope in Pardeep made the headlines, Pro Kabaddi fans who have analyzed UP Yoddha's success algorithm knew it was coming. With a defensive foundation built on talented youth retained prior to the auction, all the squad needed was that bit of firepower in the raiding unit to plug the gaps ahead of PKL 8, and there was no better final piece of the jigsaw puzzle than Pardeep.

In an exclusive interview with Sportskeeda, UP Yoddha CEO Col. Vinod Bisht breaks down Pardeep's record purchase, the franchise's belief in youth and a sneak peek into the scouting systems that have generated the best of Pro Kabaddi talents.

Q. What does it mean for the entire UP Yoddha team that the Pro Kabaddi League is returning after two whole years?

Not only for the franchise, the return of Pro Kabaddi is big for the sport. It's critical that for kabaddi to progress, the grassroots level has to develop and become the talk of the town. Because of Covid, Pro Kabaddi's absence meant that it could have derailed kabaddi. Now with PKL back, be it the stakeholders, franchises or the players, we're all thrilled that it is coming back, it's critical for the sport.

Q. UP Yoddha obviously stole the spotlight with the signing of Pardeep Narwal for such a big sum of money. What was the motivation behind splurging money on him?

As a team, all these years, we've concentrated on raiding. A rupee spent on a raider vs on a defender fetches you more, basically the return on investment on a raider vis-a-vis a defender is skewed towards raiding. The return on investment helps you to decide that you have to spend more money on a raider.

If you compare it to cricket, raiders are like batters, defenders are like bowlers. You can see the prices that raiders have got in the auctions. With that in mind, we needed raiders who were available in the market. Unfortunately, most of them who are good, fit and young raiders were retained, which left us with 2-3 star raiders. Of course you have to keep your bets secure. Pardeep was always our No.1 pick but we went for two star raiders, Siddharth (Desai) was retained back by the Telugu Titans.

We knew that in Pardeep's case, a player who has won three titles for a team, that franchise would want to get him back through the Final Bid Match (FBM) card. We had to make sure that we outbid the capacity of the franchise to retain him. We did our homework and bid beyond a certain amount to have a star raider in our squad, so I'd like to say our strategy came good.

Q. Not many people know this, but you made an extra bid of ₹10 lakh for Pardeep, raising your own bid from ₹1.55 Cr to ₹1.65 Cr. What was the reasoning behind that?

(Laughs) That was a hard ball! I tried to increase my own amount, because just for an extra 5-10 lakh we didn't want to lose him to Patna Pirates. That's why I increased the bid, sometimes you have to do your homework and understand the capacity of the other teams. Glad it worked out well eventually.

UP Yoddha CEO Col. Vinod Bisht
UP Yoddha CEO Col. Vinod Bisht

Q. Taking a lead from that, can you take us through the work put in by the support staff or scouts to build an ideal team before the auction? How does the scouting process work at UP Yoddha?

As an organisation, we have multiple teams. Our experience from one sport to another allows us to make a good comparisons and strategise. Pro Kabaddi League, through the NYP program, gives franchisees a system to pick from academies where you can develop players and work with them in their formative years on their skills and persona. The benefit then lies in how you induct them into your professional team.

As per Pro Kabaddi's NYP program, camps are conducted around the country and the players are observed by a set of coaches and support staff. The filtered players are selected for camps where they are put to the grind of the demands of the sport. Scouts from the PKL franchises are called for these camps where they watch the players and pen down their preferences for the NYP draft.

Kabaddi is a contact sport and I'm sure all of us understand that it's a young man's game, it is fast and furious, a lot of injuries come up. Younger players adapt to it better, their bodies allow them to perform better, so it helps. We invested in it (idea of youth) a couple of years ago, to start a kabaddi academy of our own.

We now have a UP Yoddha academy team, and the coaches there are the same set of professional coaches who lead our team in the Pro Kabaddi League. We pick players from local tournaments and invest in their physical well-being, diet and mental make up. We cater to all their needs, they don't need to pay for anything.

We have a filteration system where youngsters play, and based on their performances we take a call on whether the individual can make the jump to Pro Kabaddi. In the last season (Pro Kabaddi 2019), 3 of the young players namely Sumit, Ashu (Singh) and Surender (Gill) played in the first 7, and they were a revelation for us. Along with the senior players, they were our pillars of success.

This season, we have another set of players who will be making a mark and blending them with senior players, you are able to put forth a good team. I'm expecting them to do well in the coming season.

Q. One such player you've retained faith in is Shrikant Jadhav, who you bought back at the Pro Kabaddi auction using the FBM card. What was the strategy behind that move?

Shrikant has been doing well for us, he's a young and motivated guy. He's still one of the younger guys among other raiders who were available at the Pro Kabaddi auction.

Since he's been with us, we've seen his work ethic and it was critical for us. Senior players need to maintain an environment where everyone feels like a part of the team. Otherwise, sometimes star value makes players feel away from the team, so that doesn't help a franchise. That way, Shrikant fits in well with our team.

In previous seasons, we picked star raiders who played with similar capabilities and skill sets. From past experience, I feel when you have two equivalent stars, there's always a tendency to outperform each other, which may or may not work to a team's advantage. This time the hierarchy is clear, as to who will lead and who will support, as well as who will take on the role of UP Yoddha's Do or Die raider.

Q. Finally, what 'X-factor' could we see from UP Yoddha in this Pro Kabaddi 2021 season?

We have focussed on youngsters and blending them with senior raiders is what we've achieved. We have invested time, energy and resources into our academy. The work that has been put into the academy, basing our team out of there will be in some form our X-factor. The result will decide if what we did is in the right direction, or we need to put an additional layer on top of it, like some strategy. Skill sets, nutrition, strength and conditioning will all be seen, and that's what we are looking out for. Everyone has worked very hard over the past year during Covid, it will be seen during the season. Word is out there. We have to see the fruits of our labour based on how we perform in Pro Kabaddi 2021.

Edited by Habil Ahmed Sherule
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