Lightning quick Manjeet Sharma the latest in long line of fine Dabang Delhi raiders

Manjeet Sharma PKL

Manjeet Sharma is the new kid on the block in Dabang Delhi's raiding platoon. He's a teenaged assassin with three lethal skills needed for kabaddi: lightning-quick feet, a calm head on his shoulders and rubber-band like flexibility.

In his first proper season in the Pro Kabaddi League, he has already made a mark in a team that has Naveen Kumar - a two-time MVP, PKL9's top raider and one of India's best players.

On social media, his surname has given way to plenty of Sharma ji ka beta jokes.

Manjeet relishes it all. The teenager was roped in as a Covid contingency player last season to replace Ajay Thakur and was part of Dabang Delhi's pre-season camp the year before that. But this is campaign is special as he has played in all 13 games so far.

"Hi, I am Manjeet," he mutters as we do a mic check. "I am fine, thank you," he adds before sheepishly saying something to the tune of "itni hi angrezi aati hai (that's all the English I know)."

Dabang Delhi captain Naveen Kumar, sitting a few feet away, says aaram se and puts Manjeet at ease. Naveen has been in Manjeet's shoes: he too had joined Dabang Delhi as a teenager three seasons ago.

Done cracking all 10 knuckles, Manjeet gets talking on what separates him from the rest: "It's 'Naveen bhaisahab' factor: speed. Both of us are very quick. As a raider, you need to decide in a split second as to how you're going to evade the defenders - do you go for the dubki and duck under the defence or do you turn past them? I can make that decision only if I'm fast and hence I work extra hard on it," he tells ESPN.

Naveen nods in admiration. Manjeet is all of 19, but has a refreshingly mature approach to the game. He has been effective in his role as the secondary defender and has won the team plenty of clutch points, but is aware that it does not guarantee him a spot on the team.

"If Naveen is doing well, then he will go on consistent raids. If Ashu [Malik] is in form, then he will go ahead. I don't need to get to raid each time. If I am not good on a given day, then I will be substituted off the mat. The team's combination has to be good, that's what really matters," he says.

Manjeet watched PKL's first season in 2014 on television and that spurred an interest in him to take the sport seriously. He joined Dabang Delhi coach Krishan Hooda's academy in Karnal and worked his way up from there.

"I've worked very hard to be here. No matter who you are, you have to practice. Take the example of a farmer: if he does not tend to his crops regularly then his crops will go bad... The most important thing for a player is discipline. A disciplined player can achieve anything he sets out to."

The only place Manjeet lacked discipline, though, was at school. Amidst giggles, he says he has never attended a full day of school. "I'd leave during recess or sometimes after the second period," he says, grinning from ear to ear.

But in kabaddi, he had plenty of role models growing up with the likes of Pardeep Narwal, Joginder Narwal and Anil Narwal all hailing from his village of Rindhana in Haryana. "I have known Pardeep bhaisahab since my childhood. His younger brother is a good friend of mine and I go to their house quite often. I learnt kabaddi by watching him play and to play against him this season was a great experience. "I used to call him bhaisahab and I still address him that way"

Manjeet is slowly becoming a well-known name among fans and he admits that the limelight that comes along with the fame has been a new challenge. "Our first game against U Mumba...I felt that [the limelight was on me]. I had this feeling like "main kahan paar aagaya hun, aise light lagte hain ekdum (where am I? There are so many lights around). It's a little daunting when you start but you slowly get used to it."

He adapted to it quickly as he bagged 10 points in Dabang Delhi's win over Gujarat Giants three days later. Manjeet was named the Gamechanger of the match - his first PKL award. He was greeted by a raucous round of claps and pats on the back as he walked back to his teammates in what was just his second match of the season. He's received plenty of praise, but is too shy to accept it just yet. "Tareef toh jo accha karega ussi ki hogi (Those who do well receive praises)," he says.

He's full of such quirky one-liners, but the one that stood out was this: "Abhi star bannein nahi hai, abhi star banna baaki hai. [I'm not a star just yet, I'm yet to become a star]."