When Haryana Steelers and Puneri Paltan opened their Pro Kabaddi League (PKL) Season 7 campaign last week, all the spotlight was on former India captains Rakesh Kumar and Anup Kumar, who were making their coaching debuts in the league.
Adding to the curiosity, Steelers' star raiders Vikash Kandola and Prashanth Kumar Rai were rested -- a strategy that surprised many -- as the team stepped in with a bunch of youngsters other than captain Dharmaraj Cheralathan, 44. That became Naveen's cue to step up.
The 24-year-old played effortlessly and quite daringly, not once missing an opportunity to score a raid point even until the very last moment of play. Notching up 14 points, he became the top-scorer in the Steelers' comfortable 34-24 win, making people sit up and take notice.
Many didn't see it coming. Many called it luck. But for Naveen, it was destiny.
"It was a matter of destiny that I even played in the PKL in the first place," he says. "I wasn't selected for the team initially."
The selections for the PKL are usually done either on the basis of players' performances in the Nationals or through the Future Kabaddi Heroes programme for those below 22 years of age. For Naveen, representing the Sports Authority of India in the Nationals, the route was slightly tougher than anticipated.
"Rambir Singh Khokhar [Steelers' coach last season] had come for our Nationals match for scouting," he says. "At that time, our team were the pool winners. But I wasn't one of those shortlisted for the league." Months later, destiny came into play. "There was a sudden injury in the team and they needed a replacement. That's when Vikash suggested my name, and I got a call from the coach." Incidentally, the call came on his birthday. "I got the best birthday gift of my life that day," he laughs.
Naveen became a regular support raider for Steelers thereon, scoring 102 points in the remaining one month of the league. His performance played a crucial role in his eventual retention.
"It's a simple thing," he says. "The more I play, the more confident I get. This year too, the preparation has been good. I got a lot more time to focus on my fitness, diet and sleeping patterns. Whatever coach saheb says, I'll do, and hopefully, the team will keep doing better and better."
Looking at the intensity of the league, which lasts for three months, Naveen and the team went on a two-month training camp to work on their fitness. "We had an international trainer and focused majorly on gym and ground practice," he says. "We used to divide our time for both every day. Nothing is more important than fitness. If you're fit and a little careful on the mat, you won't be injured."
Playing kabaddi since his childhood days in Makrauli Kalan, a village in Rohtak, Haryana, Naveen has never had to look beyond the game. "My brother plays kabaddi, my hometown plays kabaddi," he says. "It's the most popular sport there." However, taking it up as a profession only came to his mind after the start of the PKL.
Before that, he was happy just securing a job in the Indian Railways in Patna a year after qualifying for the Nationals. "Sabse pehle toh job honi chahiye (Job had to come first)," he says. "There was a regular source of income then. One tension was resolved for the time being before another arose -- the need to play in the PKL."
Naveen did get disheartened because of the wait, but never gave up. "My family kept me motivated," he says. "They kept pushing me to keep practising and work harder. They always had faith that sooner or later I would get selected."
Now, with Rakesh Kumar donning the coach's hat, things are only looking up. "He's a very good coach," Naveen says. "He not only tells us when to attack and when to escape with a point, but also treats us as his younger brothers, taking care of the littlest things we might require."
Considering his running hand touches to be his signature move, Naveen enjoys it the most when he can make a defender wait a bit before pushing them to take a point, catching them off guard. And while he does wish to play for the national team one day, for now the focus is somewhere else. "The primary focus lies on going ahead with the team, hopefully straight to the final," Naveen says. "As the team goes up in the charts, I want to keep improving too.
"Whenever I look at players like my coach Rakesh Kumar or Anup Kumar, also known as the bonus ka baadshah (the king of bonus points), I wish that someday my name too would be taken in the game, at least somewhere."