Updated: January 8, 2022 9:08:11 pm
It was just a few months after the first Pro Kabaddi League season in 2014 when Ajay Thakur was invited to be the chief guest for a local junior tournament in Himachal Pradesh. Immediately after the matches, he would be surrounded by the players who would ask for autographs and photographs.
Now, seven years later, he recalls one of those youngsters beseeching him for a memento.
“’Ajay bhaisaab,’” he recites the words the unknown teen had said to him. “’Mujhe aap bohot acche player lagte ho, main fan hoon aapka.’ Then we took a photograph together.
“As luck would have it, we are teammates now.”
That persistent youngster is Dabang Delhi’s talismanic raider Naveen Kumar Goyat – a skinny boy who weighed under 45 kgs back then, but is now one of the brightest new stars in the sport.
The word ‘new,’ is perhaps used loosely. The 21-year-old is currently playing in his third season of the marquee league, but he had already become his team’s spearhead in 2018 – his debut season – as an 18-year-old. And how the records started tumbling.
He became the youngest to score a Super 10 (at least 10 raid points in a single match) and later became the youngest to reach 500 points. And now he’s currently on a tremendous run of scoring 28 consecutive Super 10s.
Along the way, the nickname ‘Naveen Express’ came into being (the other options were ‘toofan’ and ‘Krish’ – after the Bollywood superhero flick).
But amidst the glitz and glamour of the league, the talented raider has not been lost to stardom and the newfound fame.
“He’s very grounded. I’ve never seen him ever get affected by the stardom,” Thakur, a Padma Shri, says. “I’ve seen it go to so many people’s heads, even if it is for a few days. But that’s never happened to him. He’s the No 1 raider in India right now, but with his mannerisms, you just can’t feel it.”
Perhaps that’s why Naveen isn’t the first name that comes to mind when you discuss the big PKL stars. There’s no frog-leap celebration at the end of a successful raid. No ‘Thigh 5’ after a running hand touch. No accusatory finger-pointing if a defender refuses to accept being tagged. He just walks back into his own half with the points and gets ready to defend.
He doesn’t even bother sporting the carefully manicured hair that has become a staple for successful athletes – and even your ordinary joe. Instead, he prefers the messy mop.
“I like being a bit simple. I don’t feel driven to do a fancy haircut and all. I just do what I like,” he says.
Amidst the new riches of the PKL universe, it’s still the simple village life he enjoys.
He’s currently plying his trade in a posh-Bengaluru hotel, where the league is taking place in a bubble. But he’s already worked out what he plans to do as soon as he gets home. The same thing he does every time.
“I have a few close friends who come over. We swim in the tube well, climb jaamun trees and eat the fruit,” he says, laughing as he describes his routine.
“Phir ped ke neeche soo jaate hai. Gaon me mazza hi alag hai.”
The ‘mazza,’ the story goes, was never really kabaddi. In fact, the sport was only used as an avenue to get out of studying.
Growing up in Bhaini Kungar village in the Bhawani district of Haryana, he attended a private school but loathed his schoolwork.
“I was never interested in studying. I didn’t like going to school at all,” he says.
“But in 2010, the government school nearby started a sports program with the benefit that athletes would not need to stay in class for too long. A friend told me about it, so I tried and got in.”
The condition to getting to stay out of the classroom was to play kabaddi. It was a sport he had never played before, but this was the learning he was willing to do. And then slowly he started to get inspired by the prizes on offer.
“Some of the senior players would go out for tournaments and come back with prizes. Rs 100, 200, 500. Naya lota milta tha kabhi, par inaam toh inaam hota hai.”
It was only in 2014 though, when he won the ‘Best Raider’ award at the National School Games that he started to envision a career in the sport. The life he knew till then – the naps under the tree, running through the family farm, looking after the three buffalos that he’d climb, pull tails, and then get a hiding from his parents – all changed when he was selected as the ‘New Young Player’ (NYP) for Dabang Delhi in 2018.
In the spotlight
“All youngsters keep an eye over their shoulder to check if the coach is watching,” says Delhi coach Krishan Kumar Hooda, a Dronacharya Award recipient in the lifetime category. “They’re trying to impress you so that you pick them for the PKL. But Naveen was different.”
Hooda talks about how the unknown youngster became conspicuous during the trials simply by staying low-key. But the veteran coach knew he had found his next player.
“He would get on the court, do what he needed to do, and get off. Nothing fancy, no big celebrations. But you could see the speed in which he moved and the running hand touches were perfect,” he adds.
Once Naveen made the cut, he became the first person from his village to become a professional sportsperson. There was a celebration back home when he returned, but his parents had another surprise in store for him.
“They used to watch PKL and saw the players are all well-built. I used to weigh 70 kgs at the time, so they decided to double my food intake every day,” Naveen says.
“I used to have a litre of milk every day, they made it two litres. And they stuffed me with almonds. I couldn’t handle it. I did it for five days and then told my parents I can’t do this anymore. They agreed, but only after a few stomach upsets.”
His father, a bus driver for the Haryana Roadways, too, got a boost when his supervisor started giving him short routes instead of long-distance ones.
“The person in-charge likes to watch my matches, and then he discusses them with my father,” Naveen says.
But when the league started, the youngster could no longer float under the radar.
In the first season, he top-scored for his team with 177 points. In 2019 he went up to 303 – the third-best that season – and single-handedly took Dabang Delhi to the final, losing to Bengal Warriors.
Currently, in his third term, he’s scored 123 points and is the only one to hit three figures. And then there’s the matter of the 28 consecutive Super 10s.
“Every raider has a staple set of moves. Maybe they’ll enter from the right or left all the time. Naveen is very unpredictable,” says Raju Bhavsar, a gold-medallist from the 1990 Asian Games.
“It’s difficult to read him as a defender because he changes his strategy mid-raid. He’s a quick player – that speed itself gets him out of so many tackles. But now he’s become much more patient and mature. He knows when to make a move.”
The young player in a team filled with decorated veterans – Thakur, Manjeet Chhillar, Sandeep Narwal, Joginder Narwal – stands just as tall in stature now.
There was a time when Naveen struggled to adjust to the lighting in the glitzy league. Now he’s well used to the eyes and cameras capturing his every move. It’s why, he says, he’s never bothered getting an ‘after’ picture with Thakur after all these years later.
“Abhi photo lene ka zaroorat nahi. Bohot professional cameraman hai jo lete hai.”