It’s Kabaddi time again! Or as Star Sports wants you to believe, it’s Le Panga time. The Pro Kabaddi League (PKL) made its debut last year, with Star Sports keen to extend the template provided by the popular twenty20 cricket tournament—the Indian Premier League (IPL) across other sports, including Kabaddi. While the first season was all about how the sport would adapt to the format, this year, there has been a genuine sense of anticipation and interest, at least according to those involved with the league. What we learnt is that it’s even bigger, and better this time around.

The tournament, which began last weekend in Mumbai, has seen phenomenal viewer participation, both in-stadia and on broadcast platforms, including apps like Hotstar. The first leg of the eight-team tournament was played at the National Sports Club of India (NSCI) stadium in Mumbai between 18 and 21 July. The UTV-owned U-Mumba franchise got off to a fantastic start, winning its all four matches, as the league headed to its next venue, Kolkata, where the matches will be played at the Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose stadium.

Last year, PKL was all about giving some of these relatively unknown players a massive platform to showcase their skills. Given the success of the inaugural edition, some of these players have emerged as household names among the growing audience that has taken to one of India’s best known rural sports.

Here are some players who are lighting up this season:

Anup Kumar (U-Mumba)

Kumar, a two-time Asian Games gold medallist with India, has in many ways been the face of U-Mumba, the franchise that represents Mumbai. He captains U-Mumbai in the PKL. An Arjuna awardee in 2012, Kumar was the star of last year’s edition with the highest number of raid points, which also won him the Most Valuable Player (MVP) award. Kumar hails from Palra, a village in Haryana’s Gurgaon district. He is currently employed with the Haryana Police, and fetched Rs10.20 lakh in player auctions last year. So far this year, Kumar has a handy tally of 23 points, including 20 raid points (with one super tackle).

Shabbir Babu (U-Mumba)

Another India international, Shabbir Babu Sharafuddin has been a key cog in the U-Mumba wheel since last year. Known to be an aggressive raider, the Palakkad-born Bapu was unstoppable for Mumba last year, especially with his quick, agile and often breathtaking raids. Like his captain Kumar, Bapu also represents India in kabaddi.

According to his profile on the official U-Mumba website, Bapu sustained an injury mid-season last year, and only returned for the final stages of the tournament.

However, despite his injury, he still finished with an impressive tally of 66 points. This year, Bapu has been very prolific, tallying 26 points so far, most coming in raids. With an injury-free season and Bapu living up to his ability, his performances could catapult U-Mumba into serious title contenders.

Jasvir Singh (Jaipur Pink Panthers)

Known to be one of India’s better players, Jasvir was instrumental in leading the Abhishek Bachchan-owned Jaipur Pink Panthers to the title in the inaugural PKL season. A raider by trade, Singh was also a part of the 2010 Asian Games team that won the gold medal in Guangzhou. Now, slightly older in age and with more experience, Jasvir’s performance along with that of his teammate Maninder Singh’s have been integral to Jaipur’s fortunes in the league. With seven points in the opener against U-Mumba and nine points in the game against the Bengal Warriors, the in-form Jasvir has held his own, even as his team has failed to win its opening two matches.

Manjeet Chillar (Bengaluru Bulls)

Chillar, who leads the Kosmik Global Media-owned Bengaluru franchise, plays as an all-rounder in his team. Like Anup Kumar, Chillar too is a two-time Asian Games gold medallist, having won them in 2010 (Guangzhou) and 2014 (Incheon). He hails from Nizampur, which is popularly known as India’s kabaddi capital. Chillar today, is an important part of the Bengaluru defence, known for his tackling, and is also extremely good with his raids. The Bulls have got off to a good start in their three opening games, winning two and losing one to U-Mumba. Manjeet’s form, coupled with that of teammate Ajay Thakur, Bengaluru’s star raider, has been at the heart of Bengaluru’s opening run. Manjeet’s all-round skills came to the fore against the Patna Pirates, where he totalled 11 points, including 4 raid points and 7 tackle points.

Ajay Thakur (Bengaluru Bulls)

The 28-year-old from Dhabota village in Nalagarh district (Himachal Pradesh) is one of the best raiders in the league. His performance against the Bengal Warriors, where he totalled 11 points, was one of the highlights of the league so far. In the last season, Thakur was among the highest raiders in the league, amassing a total of 122 points and finishing fourth in the leaderboard. According to his profile on the Pro Kabaddi website, Thakur was an art student who later moved to playing kabaddi nearly 14 years ago.

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