From teen prodigy to MVP: Relentless Naveen Kumar's meteoric rise

At just 21, Naveen has had to do most of the heavy lifting for Dabang Delhi KC. PKL

Of the 361 points that Dabang Delhi KC have scored this year, a stunning 138 have come just through Naveen Kumar. That's an impressive 38 per cent of the total team tally. It is worth bearing in mind that Naveen has missed two of their 11 matches so far due to injury.

If we take just the nine matches that he has been a part of, he has scored 45 per cent of the team's total in those matches. That number is significantly better than any other player's in the league. Maninder Singh's 38.5 per cent is a distant second.

The above numbers show not just Naveen's excellence and relentless consistency but also how dependent the team has been on him. At just 21, he has had to do most of the heavy lifting even as most of the big names and senior players have floundered.

Naveen has missed out on two of the last three matches that Delhi have played owing to injury. However, his displays in the first month have ensured that Delhi are top of the table at the halfway stage of the league and have one foot into the playoffs already. Naveen, though, is anything but complacent. "I am feeling really good and happy that I am getting to play with a lot of senior players. We have lost only two matches so far and have been quick in rectifying our mistakes. The defenders are doing well and I'm sure we'll keep improving," he says.

With the league finally taking place after more than two years, Naveen is just happy to be back on the mat and does not mind being in the strict bio-bubble as long as he gets to do what he loves doing. "Earlier, we used to travel to various cities and it was a lot of fun as we could explore the cities. But the more important thing is kabaddi is finally back after more than two years. There wasn't much to do for me at home but here I'm getting a proper diet and also getting good rest and I'm also getting to practice with high-quality players."

After being named MVP last season, Naveen could be forgiven for feeling much greater pressure in what is arguably a team more dependent on him, but he chooses to only focus on the controllables and says that fitness is non-negotiable for him. "Ups and downs are part and parcel of the game. They could be a result of injuries or the pressure that is exerted by opponents but what you can always control is your practice. Even during the lockdown, I was in constant touch with Mr. Sandesh Rangnekar (Dabang Delhi KC's former trainer) and Veer Dagar, our current trainer. I used to follow the workouts and exercises given by them for one hour every morning and two hours in the evening every day. I believe that fitness is the most important aspect in a fast-paced sport like kabaddi, so even during the lockdown I never compromised on it as I never knew when we might play again."

What makes this season even more special for Naveen is the fact that he's finally in the same team as his childhood idol Ajay Thakur. Thakur has had a tough time on the mat, but he has been a constant source of advice and reassurance for the young raider this year.

"It is a dream come true for me and he always motivates me, not just in matches but also in practice sessions and he tells me what are the skills that I can focus on against a specific team. Since he has been around for so long, he knows most players' strengths and weaknesses. It's all guided by the match situation. One of the things he told me was that I have a lot of speed, so I can use that to execute the kick and jump as well other than my main skills."

It is an advice that Naveen seems to have taken to heart as he has added those skills to his signature move, the running hand touch, a move that Thakur was a master at too. "This is my age to learn and I watch a lot of videos to understand the opponents' movements and I try any new kills in practice extensively before actually using them in a match situation. Having new skills and not being predictable is very important for a raider as it keeps the defence on its toes and they know that you're not a one-trick pony."

Kabaddi might be a sport that is often associated with power and brawn but watching Naveen operate on the mat is akin to watching a Grandmaster plotting his moves in a classical match. He has a remarkable memory, knows his strengths and weaknesses inside out and never gets greedy. He puts it all down to significant research. "I do focus a lot on data and video analysis but it is also important to be aware of the match situation and what the team needs. We play a lot against in each other in various tournaments in Haryana and have faced each other often over the years.

"For example, in that game, I knew that Ravinder bhaisahab (Ravinder Pahal) likes to attack and can get impatient in his tackling sometimes, so I just waited for him to commit before making my moves. Similarly, in every match I see what the defenders like to do and then target them accordingly," he says, referring to the game against Gujarat Giants, where he helped his team to escape with a tie after getting a touch on Pahal in the match's very last raid.

The Delhi outfit might be full of legendary names but Naveen says there's no distinction between the seniors and juniors. "We have lot of juniors in our team this year, so we spend time together in the hotel and talk about various things," he says.

He picks out veteran defender Manjeet Chhillar for special praise. Manjeet might have a reputation of being one of the toughest and most uncompromising defenders in the league but he's completely different off the mat. "Manjeet bhaisahab thode khadoos lagte hai par wo bilkul waise nahin hai (Manjeet Chhillar might come across as reserved but he's quite the opposite). He keeps the environment light. He's very good friends with Ajay Thakur and Joginder Narwal, so he always ribs them about the mistakes they might have made. Even though I'm much younger, he's very approachable and easy to talk to," Naveen says.

Naveen being inconsolable and in tears after last season's final, where he was the top scorer but ended up on the losing side, was one of the defining images of season seven. When asked if defeating Bengal Warriors this season after that final and scoring his best ever match tally against them has a special meaning, he says, "You can't change the past but the future is what you can control. The match was important as they are a very good team and the defending champions but I don't see it as revenge as it is important to switch off when you're not on the mat and we are opponents only when the match is on. As long as the team is winning, the number of points I score does not matter. For me, the 18 points I scored in last year's final don't count for much because the team didn't win."

What sets Naveen apart from any other raider is his remarkable consistency. While his skills and pace make him the complete raider and a coach's dream, it's his ability to suss situations out that sets him apart.

"A lot of credit goes to the captain and coach as they have told me that me being on the mat for as long as possible is what gives our team the best chance of winning. It's all about the scenarios. If the team has a sizeable lead, it's best to play safe and not take undue risks or get overtly greedy. For example, if the opposing team's raider is in a do or die raid, it's important to not do anything stupid as the onus is on him to score. I then back myself to get a point with my next raid," he says.

With a minimum of two matches being played every day, the league has a frenetic pace and it is important for players to recuperate well. So what does Naveen do in his free time? "Rest is also very important as the league has a busy schedule but I like to dance a little bit in my free time as it is a good exercise too and also lightens the mood. When you're with friends, you don't realise how time goes by. I talk to my family every day and they are also very happy that I'm getting to play."

His immediate goal is to deliver a long elusive title for his team but 2022 is a big year for the sport of kabaddi as the Asian Games also follow later in the year. It's a tournament that Naveen desperately wants to be a part of. "There's still a fair bit of time before the Asian Games, so my main priority will be to remain fit and add some more skills in that duration. Representing India is the ultimate honour and something that every player aspires to do."

While the Asian Games might be some distance away, Naveen Kumar is on the top his game now and on course to win a second successive MVP award, though it's the bigger prize he's really after.