Pro Kabaddi League 2017 Season 5: Thalaivas coach Baskaran rues spate of injuries, opens up about his team's struggles at home
The much-anticipated homecoming of the Tamil Thalaivas turned into a week of torture as opposed to triumph for both the team and their fans. The Thalaivas joined Dabang Delhi as the only two sides to not win a single home game, after their home leg in Chennai concluded this past Thursday with 6 losses and zero wins. There were no tied games either.
10 days ago though, things looked very different. The Thalaivas had picked up back-to-back wins for the first time, their third and fourth overall, against good teams in the Bengal Warriors and Gujarat Fortunegiants respectively. It looked like they had finally learnt how to emerge on the right side of those close encounters. Their captain Ajay Thakur was in a groove, pouring in points for the side. They looked all set to utilize their home leg to launch a solid push at a playoff spot. Things turned out rather differently though.
There were close defeats to the Jaipur Pink Panthers, U Mumba and UP Yoddha - the Thalaivas could have easily come away with wins in all three. In between, there were also beatdowns, at the hands of the Puneri Paltan and Telugu Titans. In the match against the Titans, they allowed their opponents 58 points. Nothing went right for the Thalaivas all week and their coach K. Baskaran opened up about his team's struggles and the things that went into it after their final home game.
"In our team, five of our key players got injured," said Baskaran. "Lee (Dong Geon) has an ankle injury. Thivakaran was developing really well and he succumbed to a knee injury. Pradap was fine in practice, but after he went back to his room and got up the next morning, he couldn't raise his arm. The doctors mentioned that it needs to be operated on. Arun has a groin and shoulder injury. Prapanjan too has had a chest injury. He's been struggling to breathe properly and sleep well. But still, since it's our home leg, we have to play and it's only through that motivation that the players have been playing. We still managed to compete despite this."
Early in the season, the Thalaivas' defence looked fine with the only issue being consistent returns in the raiding department. Which is why Ajay Thakur finding form and Prapanjan's consistent displays had the team's fans buzzing at the prospect of a good home leg. However, the defence was shoddy all through the Chennai leg and couldn't compliment the raiders who fared quite well, Ajay Thakur having a phenomenal home leg with 74 points to his name, just one behind Pardeep Narwal who has the record for this season. In contrast, their lead defender Amit Hooda had a week to forget.
"Our defence was weakened by the injuries. Like in the last match, Darshan couldn't play well in the first half. We told him the strategy to take the raiders when they were attempting the Bonus, but it didn't work out. Then we urged him to just cut across and tackle in which we had success. In the left corner, we had a new guy, the left cover was Vijin, who already had a knee injury. Maruthu played on Wednesday, and he too went down injured," said Baskaran. "In spite of these things, to have taken on some very good offensive teams and have competed with them was good The fight shown by the boys has made me happy."
The pressures of playing in front of a raucous home crowd
Coach Baskaran also felt that the pressures that came with playing in this league, a first for many in his squad, contributed to their downfall.
"Every week, these players will be playing a match. In most districts of Tamil Nadu, at least two matches are played every week. They usually start around 11 or 12 in the night and go on till 1 or 2 AM with plenty of people watching," Baskaran mentioned. "In Pro Kabaddi, on that mat, with the crowd making so much noise, that too in an indoor stadium, it's definitely not easy."
He went on to illustrate, "I'll give you an example. Sanket Chavan, our left corner, is a good, experienced player from Maharashtra. He seemed to be struggling a bit here in the Chennai leg after playing well elsewhere. We took a timeout, took him off, spoke to him a bit and then got him back in the game. After the game got over, what he told me was, 'Coach, I was able to hear just one thing of what you said. I couldn't get anything else, it was so loud and dark and I was so tensed.' Now, when an experienced player can struggle that way, our junior players will definitely feel the pressure too."
He also took time to talk about the fans who, despite the repeated losses, turned up in large numbers with many others watching on television as well. There were no boos, just warm applause post the final match of the Chennai leg for the team.
"Our Tamil Thalaivas fans are special. I have been a coach in Pro Kabaddi for four years, this is my fifth. I was at Jaipur for three seasons. In the second season, after we lost the first two matches, for the third one the crowds didn't turn up. 2,000 was their capacity. That third match we won after which the crowds returned for the fourth match; back then it was four instead of six like now. Here, however, it's not been like that," highlighted the coach.
"I haven't read the papers too much or gone through media postings, but most of what the players’ friends and family and the fans have been sending to the players is just encouragement. It has been overall very positive. They're saying that we have fought well. All the players from Tamil Nadu in the team are very young. They're saying that despite that we have fought so well against good teams," he continued.
"Even when we have lost so many games, they're so hopeful that we can rebound and win the remaining matches. When we hear such things, when we see that only positive responses are coming in, we get that feeling that we should somehow achieve and deliver something for them. That desire to not disappoint these fans has helped the players to fight in every match," Baskaran went on to say.
Close losses hit hard
Barring a few blowout losses, the debutants ran many a team close with a few crucial moments taking the game away from them. That trend, which looked like it had finally been corrected, reared its ugly head again in the Chennai leg in games against the Pink Panthers, Mumba and Yoddha.
Coach Baskaran went on to talk about how those losses impacted the players' psyche - "You would have observed, in matches where we should have won, due to some few moments we ended up losing the game. It is evident to everybody. Pressure too has played a part where they have felt they're losing matches they should have won and they don't know why it has happened so many times. Sometimes it's easier to recover after an easy loss than a narrow one because you always think about how you let that game get away. It's a terrible feeling."
Even with the losses though, the Thalaivas have displayed a lot of heart in dire situations. The coach spoke about how the coaching team has tried to restore the players' spirits after some of these hard losses saying, "That's why, once every match is over, we treat them as a family member and it's up to us to console them and build them up again and get them ready for the next game. We keep telling them that they can still do it. It is because of this that, as you have seen, even with deficits of 15-20 points, they still keep fighting and want to make a comeback."
He also made no bones about the fact that the team let their supporters down.
"Have our fans been let down? Most definitely, yes. It's true. There's definitely a disappointment that we couldn't win a single game here," the veteran coach said
"After the loss to UP Yoddha, we were 99% out of the tournament. Despite that, the fans came back saying that if we won our four remaining games and UP lost, we could make the playoffs; that if we make the playoffs, we could even go to the final. That level of self-confidence is what the fans have been giving us constantly. When we tell the players about this, all the blows they've taken, both physical and mental, are temporarily pushed aside and they are given a boost," Baskaran said as he went into how faithful the fans were which was what made the defeats a bitter pill to swallow.
The unrelenting support from his side's fans also didn't go unnoticed. "So, the fans are well and truly responsible for getting us back up every time we have been down. We have found that a lot of people have turned up to watch us play. Our stadium has been the fullest out of all arenas this year, for all 6 days," he added.
He rounded things off by talking about how the focus would now shift to next season. They would look at giving a good account of themselves in the three remaining matches this season, but the main thing was to look at how they could rebound.
"For the next season, I am making a challenge to myself, and I've also said this to my players to challenge themselves to do better. That we must find a way to put the disappointment of this season behind us and see what we need to do to become champions next year."
After the auctions, coach Baskaran had mentioned how, for this project, he had spurned experienced players in favour of raw, young ones in order to develop them. He said he had no regrets in that approach and went on to talk about the success stories of the season.
"Prapanjan is now well-known to all. Thivakaran has come to the fore; had he not gotten injured, we wouldn't have had so much difficulty. Then Pradap, such a young guy, despite lacking in weight and size, has achieved so much. Darshan - he was part of the young talent pool of 15-20 players and I loved his timing and quickness as well as his hard work, which is why we took him. Vijin and Maruthu are more experienced players compared to Darshan, but he has overtaken them to take up a spot in the starting seven which says a lot," a proud Baskaran said.
"So, the challenge that I undertook when I decided to go for these players instead of experienced ones, has been 80% successful. The remaining 20%, the results, have not come. When people ask me why the results have not come despite me supposedly being a very good coach, I have not had an answer for them. When there are mistakes made, I have to own up to them. When the success comes, it should go to the players, but the losses should go to the coach," he added resolutely.
He concluded by thanking everyone for their support and making a personal vow to rebound next season. The Thalaivas coach signed off saying, "Taking all that's happened this season and accepting responsibility for all the losses, I'm challenging myself to make it up to everyone and create opportunities for us to be victorious next season."