A fresher and bigger edition of the widely popular Pro Kabaddi League (PKL) will begin here on Friday, with a total of 12 teams fighting it out for the top honors over the next 13 weeks.Into its fifth season, the league's popularity can be gauged from the fact that as many as four new teams - Gujarat Fortunegiants, Haryana Steelers, UP Yoddha and Tamil Thalaivas have been added this time.
"Due to PKL, our sport has gained a lot of popularity. Now, with the additions of these new teams, the profile of the league and the sport is further elevated," Telugu Titans star Rahul Chaudhary reckoned at the trophy unveiling ceremony.
On the first day of the campaign, Titans clash with Ajay Thakur-captained Tamil Thalaivas, while former champions U Mumba, who will be led by veteran Anup Kumar, will take on Deepak Niwas Hooda-captained Puneri Paltan at the Gachibowli Indoor Stadium.
The new edition will also see a new format in which 12 teams have been divided into two zones of six teams each. Each of the teams will play 15 intra-zone and seven inter-zone matches, prior to the playoffs.
Zone A consists of Dabang Delhi, Jaipur Pink Panthers, Puneri Paltan, U Mumba, Haryana Steelers and Gujarat Fortunegiants while Zone B will have Telugu Titans, Bengaluru Bulls, Patna Pirates, Bengal Warriors, UP Yoddha and Tamil Thalaivas.
The playoffs stage will comprise three qualifiers and two eliminators, which are scheduled to take place in Mumbai and Chennai. The final will be held on October 28 in Chennai.
While double defending champions Patna captain Pardeep Narwal promised to make it three in a row, Dabang Delhi skipper Meraj Sheykh's intention is to get into the playoffs.
While the new teams, even though boasting of experienced players, may struggle in putting up their best combination initially, some of the teams like Jaipur Pink Panther, who have overhauled their full squad, will also begin nervously.
Seasoned all-rounder Manjit Chillar, who will lead the Rajasthan outfit this time, said luck will play a major role in determining the fortunes of the teams.
"All the teams are here to win, as we do. All the teams have prepared well but at critical moments luck becomes a big factor," Manjit said.
Thakur, who will lead Tamil Thalaivas said: "We have a young and energetic bunch of new players. For them, holding their nerves in such (match) environment will be important."
Mumbai and Bengaluru will also be among favorites, while Titans and Warriors are desperate to put their hands on the trophy.
"Despite having good teams in the first four editions, we couldn't do it. We will come up with full force," Warriors captain Surjeet Singh noted.
Their 18-member squad has a number of new recruits. Surjeet and former Jaipur players Maninder Singh and Ran Singh are some of the new faces on the side.
Anup felt that the teams having the most number of all-rounders will walk away with the trophy.
As many as 27 overseas players will feature in the league. Delhi's Iranian raider Mehraj and South Korean Jang Kun Lee of Bengal are quite popular among the foreign recruits.
Apart from the bigger pool of players, this edition will have a bigger prize money of Rs 8 crore ($1,244,800), a significant and unprecedented jump of Rs 6 crore. The title winners will take home Rs 3 crore ($466,800).
The runners-up will be awarded Rs 1.8 crore ($280,080), while the team that finishes in the third place will win Rs 1.2 crore ($186,720).
The Most Valuable Player prize is also receiving a boost this season, with the awardee set to win Rs 15 lakh ($23,340).