When Naveen Kumar made his Pro Kabaddi League debut last season, he was the first player born in the 21st century to play in the PKL. By the end of PKL6, he was among the top ten scorers of the season.
Now, at the end of the first 10 days of season 7, Naveen is top of the leaderboard for most points scored. Drafted in as one of the new young players from the Future Kabaddi Heroes programme, Naveen has changed Dabang Delhi's fortunes. The team that hadn't even made the play-offs until last season, now comfortably sits atop the points table with a 100% win record.
"I started playing the sport in 2011, when I was in class seven," Naveen recalls. "I was in a government school in Kungar village (in Bhiwani district of Haryana), where we used to play kabaddi. That's where my journey started."
Naveen went on to play in the school games, junior national championships and then the University championships and senior national championships for Haryana before being shortlisted for the Future Kabaddi Heroes programme. He was then part of a camp in Mumbai, where all the PKL franchises had come for scouting, after which he was picked by Delhi in the auction before Season 6.
From thereon, the 19-year-old's rise has been rapid. In Delhi's opening match in Season 6, he started as the third raider behind Shabeer Bappu and Meraj Sheykh. By his fourth match, he scored his first Super 10. Midway through the season, he became Delhi's lead raider and took them all the way to a fourth-place finish. His 177 points were the most for Delhi last season as he notched up eight Super 10s on the way.
Being the youngest member of the league, the team's captain Joginder Singh Narwal and coach Krishan Kumar Hooda took him under their wing and imbued him with confidence.
"Our team was very strong and we had very experienced players. They used to guide me and help me out. I also have a very good understanding with Chandran Ranjit and Meyraj. We used to work as a team as in kabaddi you can only have success if the entire team is pulling in the same direction," he says.
"Be it Hooda sahib, Joginder bhaisaheb, Ravinder bhaisahab (veteran defender Ravinder Pahal) or a champion player like Vishal Mane, they always guide me and tell me about the mistakes that I can avoid and how can I target opponents' weaknesses and score points," he adds. "Our seniors players go out of their way to help and guide us."
When asked about how the team finally cracked the playoffs code last year, he says, "We struck a good balance between offence and defence. What also worked for us was that we had three very good raiders, so even if one of us was having an off day, the other two were stepping up."
Having retained the core of their team, Delhi now look to carry forward the momentum they had earlier set. "Our only goal this year is to play as team because as long as we do that, we know everything else will fall into place as we have the team to go all the way and become champions."
It might be early days in season 7, but Naveen is shaping up as the MVP so far. He has the numbers to back him up. He tops the total points, raid points, successful raids and Super 10s tally. However, it is his ratio of successful to unsuccessful raids, which stands at a staggering 6.5, that makes him special. For perspective, the next best ratio is Maninder Singh's 5.25.
Of Naveen's 52 raids this season, 26 have been successful, while only four have been unsuccessful. The remaining 22 have been empty. For a player so young, Naveen has always shown impressive maturity, knowing exactly when he needs to score points and when he can afford to have an empty raid.
However, the young raider isn't driven by individual glory.
"My only goal is to help the team win. If the team goals are met, the individual goals will take care of themselves," he says.
Naveen credits his success and consistency to thorough preparation. "We watch a lot of videos before the matches to analyse the opponents. We then sit together and follow the strategy chalked out by the coach and senior players.
"However, no one can teach you game awareness. It is important to realise small things like you should avoid getting tackled when the Super Tackle is on as that could cost your team dear," he says. "The better the practice, the better the performance."
Talking about his inspiration in the game, Naveen says, "When the PKL was launched, I used to follow Ajay Thakur a lot and liked his style of play."
It's no wonder then that the running hand touch (Thakur's signature move) is Naveen's favourite move, too. "I really like the running hand touch as it requires a lot of speed and skill besides high fitness levels. But I think I can also execute the toe touch and frog jump well as it is imperative to keep the defenders guessing."
However, he wants to add more moves to his repertoire and continue improving. "Ranjit and Meyraj are senior players and have a lot of experience. For example, Ranjit has a very good back kick, where he catches the defenders unaware and rushes them. Not many can do that. So I keep asking him about the technique he uses. Similarly, other top raiders have their own signature moves and there is always something to learn by just observing them."
A firm believer in intensive practice and skills training, Naveen says he does not fear any defender and respects all of them though he considers Surjeet Singh, Parvesh Bhainswal and Sunil Kumar to be among the toughest defenders he has faced.
Having been hailed by former India coach Hooda and former India captain Rakesh Kumar as a fine talent, Naveen says his ultimate aim is to play at the international level. "My ultimate dream is to represent India, so I'll keep doing my best to achieve that," he says.
On current form, it seems only to be a matter of time before he makes the international stage his own too.