Defending champion Dabang Delhi has lost its way in the ongoing ninth edition of the Pro Kabaddi League, losing its last six games.
Delhi made a blistering start to the season, winning the first five encounters, but the sudden loss of form of two of its key players – Naveen Kumar and Manjeet – has hit the team hard.
Youngster Ashu Malik has been the lone bright star – amassing 78 raid points in 11 games – and coach Krishan Kumar Hooda is relying heavily on the 20-year-old raider to bail Delhi out of its troubles.
Ashu, hailing from Khanpur Kalan village in the Gohana tehsil of Sonipat district, was roped in by Delhi under the New Young Player programme and tasted success in his rookie season by winning the PKL 8 title. He, however, had very little game time and scored only 51 raid points in the entire season.
But there were fleeting moments of brilliance, allowing Delhi to set up a raiding triumvirate this season. Naveen leads the charge in raiding, with support from Ashu and Manjeet.
Ashu dreams of making it to the Indian team like his role-model Rakesh Kumar. “I started playing kabaddi for the first time in 2011/12. Rakesh Kumar was quite popular at the time and had a huge name in this sport,” he says.
Ashu has been a prodigy, representing Haryana in the sub-junior nationals, junior state championship, senior state championship and school nationals.
Haryana has always been at the forefront of producing quality athletes, including young kabaddi players. Talking about the difference in conditions in Haryana and other states, Ashu says: “I suppose the greatest difference is in the diet. Dudh, dahi, ghee ka khana main hai (milk, yogurt and butter is an integral part of our diet), and apart from that, several tournaments are played in Haryana, which increases competition.”
Regular local tournaments in the state play their part in unearthing talents. “Tournaments like K7 and others are a great platform that gives representation to far more players than any other tournament,” Ashu says. Ashu was adjudged the best player at K7 Stage Up in 2021.
Delhi, nursing a vulnerable defence, sits eighth (as of November 7) in the points table and there are other obvious flaws in its game.
Ashu, however, feels confident in his ability and expects the team to stage a strong recovery. “When the team is doing well, we often overlook our flaws. But, now that we’ve lost a handful of games, we know where we stand and are working hard to train harder, strategise better, and play our best,” he says.
Ashu has single-handedly kept Delhi in the contest in the last few games, raking in 52 raid points in the last four games.
“Naveen had some back issues, and the coach asked us to raise and manage Naveen’s workload; this is why I was the primary raider for the last few games ahead of Naveen,” he adds.
With the season halfway through, it will be interesting to see how Delhi moves forward, as momentum is not on its side. But Ashu is confident: “There are still a lot of matches left in the tournament, and we will be back at the top of the points table.”
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