Pardeep Narwal is currently the best Pro Kabaddi player. Pondering over any other superlative to describe him would simply complicate matters. At 20, the Patna Pirates raider is ahead of the chasing pack that had a massive head-start over him when the league began in 2014.

Narwal was not part of the inaugural edition and played in just six matches in season 2 (for Bengaluru Bulls). Fast-forward to season 5, however, and he has scored 327 raid points in 24 matches at an average of more than 13 points per game. In the second eliminator against the Haryana Steelers on Monday, he scored a record 34 raid points in a single match. These numbers are unheard of in the Pro Kabaddi circuit. Keeping him company at the top this season, which ends on 28 October, are eight other prodigious young athletes, average age 24, and Ajay Thakur, 31.

Thakur is the lone player over 30 among this season’s top 10 raiders. Gujarat Fortunegiants raider Sachin Tawar, 18, is the youngest of the lot.

Tawar, who is playing in the Pro Kabaddi League for the first time, has skyrocketed into the top tier. With 148 raid points in 23 matches, he is currently tenth on the list—and the most expensive teenager in the league. Gujarat picked up the junior national team captain for Rs36 lakh.

The calibre is heavily concentrated among the young players, many of whom have settled firmly into the starting seven of their teams. The old guard, however, is finding it increasingly difficult to make an impact. Season 5, then, has seen multiple young stars establish their clout, while the veterans are slowly but steadily beginning to lose their sheen.

A glance at the defenders suggests the picture isn’t too different. While Haryana Steelers defender Surender Nada, 30, currently has the most number of tackle points, he is being pursued relentlessly by nine other defenders, whose average age is around 23.

U Mumba’s veteran captain Anup Kumar was the most successful raider in season 1. Now 34, Kumar is the only senior player who has managed to score more than 100 raid points this season (112). It’s clear, 30 is the breaking point.

Anup Kumar remains one of the Pro Kabaddi League’s stalwarts. Photo: HT
Anup Kumar remains one of the Pro Kabaddi League’s stalwarts. Photo: HT

One reason why the older players are grappling for form may be that they were required to remodel their technique in 2014 when Star Sports, the official broadcaster and league stakeholder, introduced new rules to make play more exciting.

These rules reward players for being gutsy on the mat. Periods of inactivity are punished. What was already an end-to-end game is now played at express pace. Pace is something that the older players have historically struggled with.

So, for instance, there was no time limit for a raid before the inception of Pro Kabaddi. Attackers often used up 35-40 seconds, or even more. Now these same players must execute a raid in under 30 seconds.

Adding to the theatrics, the speakers blare out the final 10 seconds in descending order. Every single play ends with a dramatic countdown. It makes for intriguing viewing but it also demands that much more from the player.

“Even 10 additional seconds make a huge difference, there was no strict rule before," says Haryana Steelers coach Ranbir Singh Khokhar. Khokhar, who has more than 35 years of coaching experience, has seen Pro Kabaddi’s veterans slugging it out on mud and, now, the mat.

Before taking up the managerial role at Haryana, he was a coach at the Sports Authority of India in Sonepat and the National Institute of Sports in Patiala—two major kabaddi centres.

“Now the raider is required to perform within 20-23 seconds because of the countdown. When the countdown begins, he is only thinking of retreating to his own half. It demands speed and extremely quick footwork from the players. The change in rules meant players had to tweak their style of play," he explains.

Another new feature is the “do or die raid". To reduce periods of lull, raiders are required to attempt a point at least once every three attempts.

Three consecutive empty raids (which do not result in points) lead to the dismissal of the player and a point to the opposition, something that didn’t happen earlier. It means players have to find new and innovative ways to outsmart their rivals.

“The same old techniques are being executed at a much quicker pace," says Khokhar?. “Pardeep Narwal’s style of ‘retreating’ to his own half is unique. He dodges the opposition defenders well; I have rarely seen it before."

“The older players try to copy his technique but they cannot successfully execute it. If you try and change their methods, their performance takes a beating. You need elasticity and swiftness to do it. The younger players are displaying variation in their performance and technique. They can attack from the right and left as well, their footwork is much better."

In a sport where disrespecting your elders is considered a cardinal sin, Pro Kabaddi’s young talents find themselves in a rather strange predicament. The same players that they look up to are now looking at them for inspiration and ingenuity.

“If there’s a new kid on the mat, I watch him keenly and learn his game to see the new techniques that he’s brought into the sport," says Jaipur Pink Panthers captain Manjeet Chhillar.

Since the competition began in 2014, only Manpreet Singh (Fortunegiants coach) has officially retired. It may not be long before others follow suit.