Captain Surinder Singh was quick to mention that Guman Singh won’t be the lone raider for U Mumba. It was the area that proved to be the pivotal factor in the 2015 champions incurring a forgettable 2022, where they had finished ninth on the points table. But U Mumba made their amends. Courtesy of an auction strategy Gholamreza Mazandarani, who is back onboard as a coach, U Mumba roped in two players from Iran – Alireza Mirzaeian and Amirmohammad Zafardanesh – to strengthen their raiding department. And the franchise witnessed the Iranian impact instantly. Although U Mumba won their opener and lost their second tie so far in the 2023 season, Zafardanesh made a fine start to his time at the franchise. The youngster led the charge with 11 points in U Mumba’s 34-31 win against U.P. Yoddhas at the EKA Arena by TransStadia in Ahmedabad on Saturday before PKL witnessed a couple of lightning-quick raids from Zafardanesh in the team’s loss against Gujarat Giants on Tuesday.
Speaking to Hindustan Times Digital, Surinder opened up on the U Mumba squad for the 2023 season and the importance of the addition of Mazandarani in the wake of back-to-back disappointing seasons. Here are excerpts…
Q) The last season did not go as per expectations in terms of the team’s performance, but what was it like returning to U Mumba?
More than returning back, I am more excited that this season we will be able to play in front of our home fans and in rest of the cities as well. We kind of fell slightly congested during Covid times, but all is well now.
Q) You spent most of your PKL career at U Mumba. How different is this franchise from the rest, in terms of the facilities provided and the management, the team culture?
My PKL career itself started with U Mumba, so I know the team better than any other side. What I have felt is that like those in the management, Sandeep and Rehan sir, they both treat us like we are part of a family, like brothers. Hence, the communication between the players and the management is also great.
This time we also got a chance to train for close to 20 days at the Olympic High Performance Centre which was great. The main aspect of it was the information we gained on diet and the foods we need to take. Overall, it was very motivating. The players bonded well during the entire process.
Q) Last year U Mumba had announced you as a captain, how was that experience like? As a captain how would you describe yourself?
It was a huge responsibility that was given to me last season and I gave my 100 per cent to it. As far I feel, I did do a decent job, but unfortunately I got injured and things went haywire. In the first 11 games, U Mumba looked great with the combination that we had, but post the injury and me getting ruled out, our team began to fall behind.
I learnt a lot from Anup Kumar and Fazel Atrachali, who was in fact my roommate for two seasons, and tried to implement those aspects during the matches, especially the part about keeping the team motivated even when they are trailing. Moreover, in preparing for matches we do use a lot of data and video analysis to work on the weakness of the opponent team, but during the match, situations tend to change, and it is all about taking decisions right then, so I was able to understand and successful take those calls as well.
Q) Coming back to the squad, what has been your assessment of U Mumba after the auction?
The team is looking very strong. With Girish Ernak on the left, Rinku on the right, we also got Mahendra Singh as left cover. So the defence is definitely outstanding, I would say. In the raiding department, last season Ghuman Singh did not get that support because only one raider worked for us, but this time we have Pranay Rane and Jai Bhagwan, who were both young players from the last edition, but look more mature and stronger this time. We also have two Iranian players (Alireza Mirzaeian and Amirmohammad Zafardanesh) have joined the squad. I feel there is a good competition even among the players to make it to the playing team.
Q) What is it about U Mumba not targeting big-name players at the PKL auction this time?
We also believe in grooming youngsters and giving them more opportunities so that they can make the most of it and emerge as top players.
Q) You talked about the two Iranian players now. Last year, the raiding department did look a bit weak especially after Guman Singh’s injury. What was the thought behind picking Alireza and Zafardanesh
This time we have Gholamreza Mazandarani of Iran as our coach. None of the Indian players knew anything about these two Iranian players. Only Gholamreza sir knew how good they are and how strong they would make our squad. And we trusted that because Alireza and Zafardanesh were not in the plans of any other franchises. Ghuman is going to get a lot of support this time.
Q) In the wake of U Mumba’s performance last season, how important was the decision to bring back Gholamreza Mazandarani?
Gholamreza sir is an outstanding coach. He breathes kabaddi. And he tends to explain every minute aspects when we are training for matches. And my equation with him is also very good.
8) Last two seasons were a bit disappointing for U Mumba. It tends to put psychological impact on the team as well. What has been your message to the team and to the new players as a captain?
There are a lot of youngsters in the team, two of which are from Iran. So it is a big opportunity for all these players and I motivated them a lot. I told them that this is their first season and it could have a huge impact on their career in PKL. I also told the entire squad that reaching the final is the aim and that is what matters in PKL. We have to give our 100 per cent in every game and think more about the team and less about individual performance.
Q) Any players to watch out for this season?
Pranay Rane. Then in defense there are Bittu and Sombir. There are also Mukilan Shanmugam and Gokulakannan M, who are excellent covers.