The Giants rose from the ashes to script an incredible comeback - one that will go down in the history of Pro Kabaddi League.
Despite being one of the youngest teams in PKL, Gujarat Giants rapidly emerged as one of the strongest. With 2 appearances in the finals in the last 3 campaigns, the Giants went into Season 8 as strong contenders. With just the elite cover duo of Sunil-Parvesh retained alongside two New Young Players, the Giants had to essentially build a team from scratch.
At the Season 8 auction the Giants assembled a new-look team, building one of the strongest defences on paper, along with a solid core of young players, spearheaded by the visionary coach, Manpreet Singh. The former PKL winner returned as the coach for the fourth consecutive year, with former teammate Neer Gulia by his side – and this coaching team became the heart and soul of the Giants, the brains behind the comeback.
Having previously unearthed talents such as Pawan Sherawat and Sachin Tanwar, the fans awaited another superstar among Gujarat's young recruits. Under Manpreet Singh's guidance, the Giants recruited a strong defence in the form of Ravinder Pahal, Girish Ernak and the Su-Par Jodi, along with the young blood of Rakesh HS, Rathan K and Ankit, to name a few.
A first for the kabaddi world, players had to spend months at a stretch in a bio-bubble. This led to several challenges and obstacles along the way, but the players were always determined to do their best to make the Giant Army happy. The Giants spent months in the training camp set up in Bengaluru, where the players and staff worked rigorously on fitness and strategy. Gujarat also became one of the pioneers in PKL by hiring a sports psychologist, which helped bolster the players' morale during difficult phases of the season. The new and indispensable support team also consisted of a manager, two trainers and physios, and a masseuse.
However, the team faced another setback when Sonu Jaglan and Gaurav Chhikara were ruled out for the entire season due to injuries. However, the Giants persevered despite several challenges in the pre-season and were ready to take the centre stage in arguably one of Kabaddi's biggest events.
Following the training camp, the players went into the bubble at the Sheraton Grand Bengaluru Whitefield Hotel. And thus began our PKL journey…
The hotel hosted all the 12 teams throughout the course of the season and became a kabaddi arena by itself. Gujarat Giants kicked off the season in stunning fashion - securing a 7-point win over inaugural champions, Jaipur Pink Panthers. However, the first half of the season didn't exactly go as planned. The Giants failed to register a win in their next six matches and went on to win on just three occasions in their first 12 fixtures. With just 10 games remaining in the season, most experts and pundits didn't give the Giants much of a chance to make it to the playoffs. Many argued that the team were over-reliant on their defence, which was misfiring at the time. Gujarat faced another blow when star defender, Ravinder Pahal had to pull out midway into the season due to an injury.
However, there was a huge positive in the Giants camp. Manpreet Singh had unearthed yet another gem in the form of HS Rakesh, who earned the nickname ‘Highly Skilled Rakesh’. After securing 17 points in the first 4 outings of his debut season, Rakesh amassed a whopping 60 points in the next 5. Manpreet Singh's men mounted a stellar comeback in the second leg, filled with a renewed sense of hope and confidence.
The Giants looked unstoppable in the second half of the season, and the massive swing in momentum started with a 32-26 victory over Haryana Steelers. In their last 10 matches of the group stages, the Giants registered 7 wins and 1 draw, facing defeat only twice. This included victories over Bengaluru Bulls, UP Yoddha, U Mumba and Bengal Warriors. The defence came to the fore and was ably supported by the raiders - Rakesh HS, Rakesh Narwal, MGR, Ajay Kumar and Pardeep Kumar. Rising superstar, Rakesh HS, was one of the finds of the season, racked up a whopping 140 points in his debut campaign. Ajay Kumar and Pardeep Kumar were sensational in the latter half of the season, as they brought their exuberance and unique traits to the mat. While the duo amassed 79 points each in Season 8, the ever-reliant Rakesh Narwal contributed 81 points. Fan-favourite Mahendra Ganesh Rajput, too, played an essential part in Gujarat's surge to the playoffs, as the raider scored 65 valuable points for his team.
The Giants won 4 of their last 5 matches to secure a much-coveted Top 6 spot. The team embodied the Giant mentality and refused to give up till their last breath of kabaddi kabaddi… Each and every player led by example as the team rose from the ashes to finish 4th in the league table.
However, after a sensational raid to the playoffs, Gujarat failed to progress any further. The Giants came up short against Bengaluru Bulls despite their best efforts in Eliminator 2. Even though we didn't manage to lift the trophy, the players left the mat with their heads held high.
Though there are plenty of unknowns in the lead-up to the next season, one thing is certain - the Giants will roar back stronger!