49:13 reads the clock as Parag Shrivas goes on a run deep into opposition territory. 0-0 reads the score between Bengaluru FC and NorthEast United. As Shrivas enters the NorthEast box, he looks up to see Roy Krishna in the six-yard box, and just beside him, Sivasakthi Narayanan.
The box is where Sivasakthi has always felt most at home. Ever since he started taking this sport seriously, he's never wanted to be anything other than a goal-scorer, a finisher. And home had always treated him well. He ran up massive tallies at Raman Vijayan academy in Tamil Nadu; a point best illustrated by his top-scoring exploits in the national youth league, where he scored 22 goals in 12 games. He then joined Bengaluru FC, where in his first season with the reserves he scored 15 goals (and made eight assists) in 12 matches in the Bangalore Super Division. A senior call-up was marked with the Durand Cup triumph earlier this season. He top-scored for the team, capping it all off with a goal of delicious imagination in the final, his first ever start for BFC -- bullying Mourtada Fall en-route chipping Phurba Lachenpa in the Mumbai City goal.
Solo goals, neat finishes, accidental deflections, tap-ins from a yard out... he has scored a lot. He has never discriminated, he just wants to score. As he told ESPN before the ISL season started, "However I hit it, I just want the ball to go into the goal. Even if it just somehow hits my leg. If you score a beauty or [a tap-in], they'll still give you just one goal, right?"
The scoreboard doesn't care. Neither does Sivasakthi.
With defenders rushing in, Shrivas quickly releases the ball to Sivasakthi, who's just inside the box, near the top left corner of it.
When Sivasakthi got the ball in that NorthEast box, he would have been forgiven for just making the safe, square pass to a more experienced teammate. In 332 previous minutes of ISL football this season, he had not scored: the longest stretch he'd ever gone without a goal. Posts were hit, near-misses were near-missed, but the ball refused to do what it had always seemed to do for him, get into the back of the net. As form deserted him, injury plagued him -- a season that had started so promisingly had taken an ugly turn. Much like it had for his club.
Languishing in ninth place before this match, BFC had won just 10 points in 12 games. They had scored just eight goals, the lowest in the league.
Sivasakthi had already missed a connection with a neat near post run and chipped the ball straight into the goalkeeper's hands in a one-on-one situation earlier in this match. It looked, for all the world, like it would remain 8 scored in 13 for Bengaluru.
Emil Benny and Jon Gaztanaga steam in and Sivasakthi has no time. He had opened up a small pocket of space waiting for Shrivas to give him the ball, but that's rapidly shrinking. Without as much as a look-up he takes a slight touch and stabs at it. The ball goes hard and high, and past Mirshad Michu in the NorthEast goal. 1-0 Bengaluru FC.
What a moment for young Sivasakthi, who scores his first #HeroISL goal. ��
- Bengaluru FC (@bengalurufc) January 6, 2023
The finish felt instinctive, but somehow also carefully considered. Sivasakthi's ability to compute the best route to goal is a combination of instinct and methodical calculation. He had told ESPN about how he studies defences -- who is slower, who favours one side over the other, what kind of stance the goalkeeper takes -- when sitting on the bench, and even in-game. Since he is so slight ("I know I have no body"), he is always on the lookout for an edge.
With defenders closing in, with Mirshad slightly off his line... this was arguably the only way to get the goal from there. The concept of the toe-poke simultaneously takes the defenders out of the equation and doesn't allow Mirshad any time to correct his positioning. The power and placement of the execution a testament to his pure talent.
332 minutes without a goal. A couple of big misses in this match itself. But when it came to it, there was never an element of doubt in his mind. There's nothing called too audacious. It's a level of trust in his own ability that marks him out.
After being mobbed by teammates on the field, Sivasakthi breaks out and runs straight to the dugout, where waiting him for him is club captain and all-round legend, Sunil Chhetri. Who gives him a massive smile and embraces him in a bear hug.
- Indian Super League (@IndSuperLeague) January 6, 2023
"I'm a massive Chhetri fan, always was," Sivasakthi told ESPN. "I used to support BFC much before I signed for them, back in my [academy] hostel days itself. When I first got a chance to train with the [BFC] first team, I didn't feel like training only... I just watched him, what he was doing, how he was doing it."
Chhetri called him "the superstar, the main man" after the Durand Cup final. Now Chhetri was embracing him warmly after his first ever ISL goal.
"I know I'm just starting out, that I've achieved nothing yet." Sivasakthi is learning from two of the best in the land -- Krishna and Chhetri constantly pepper him with advice, a rare, elite, education he's keen to embrace -- and the humility of the student is evident. But so is the slight arrogance of a would-be-superstar, the kind you need to make it to the very top: "As far as I have seen, no ISL team has an Indian striker... as a main striker. Even Chhetri plays on the wings. So I have always had only one target in my mind -- to play in the stead of the foreign striker. By the time I retire, I will show its possible - to play as main striker in the first XI for all ISL games in a season, to bench foreign strikers."
Now, the first step to that immense dream has been taken. Bengaluru FC, and an Indian national team desperately searching for successors to Chhetri, will be hoping this is just beginning.