Indestructible. Unstoppable. Trailblazer.
These are the most common adjectives people use when they talk about Pro Kabaddi League's young sensation Naveen Kumar. If you have watched him in action, none of those descriptions would seem far-fetched.
PKL 7's second highest scorer this season with 175 points, Naveen has been remarkably consistent. In the 14 matches Dabang Delhi KC have played so far, Naveen has scored 13 Super 10s. Pawan Kumar Sehrawat is a distant second with nine in 15 matches. The gap over last season's MVP itself should tell you all you need to know about the Delhi raider's dominance.
Off the mat, however, Naveen is a different person altogether.
Sitting coyly in a restaurant in Taj Bengal, Kolkata, wearing a casual blue t-shirt with track pants, 19-year-old Naveen comes across like any other regular teenager. Except that he isn't. When pointed out how hard-to-believe his numbers are, he seems unperturbed. "It's because of the team," he says, matter-of-factly. "Whenever I go out, they manage to revive me."
His larger-than-life personality on television is very different from the one that sits across the table. Here, he is a boy who knows what he's doing, and yet seems to be happily unaware about the dread he has quickly spread among the opposing teams. "I don't think there's anything special about my game," he says. "I think the confidence that everyone else has on me drives me. The fact that I'm getting so many opportunities reflects what my team thinks of me. That encourages me to build on my skills."
In Delhi's 25-47 loss against Haryana Steelers on the opening day of the Kolkata leg, two things were very prominent: Haryana were overshadowing the table-toppers and Naveen was getting benched too often. Haryana captain Dharmaraj Cheralathan later revealed that it was part of their strategy. "Naveen doesn't attack the defenders. He tempts them to attack him and then takes points when they do so because of his speed," he explained. "The key for a defender against him is to not get tempted."
For Naveen though, it all comes down to a simple tit-for-tat rule.
"If they make a strategy to bench me, then we'll make one against them to keep bringing me back," he laughs. He, however, echoes Dharmaraj's assessment when talking about his style of play. "I like taking points from the corners. My coach keeps telling me that I have speed and power so I can quickly turn around and take a point. The more I try to run, the more problematic it might get."
In a fast-paced game like kabaddi, he is well aware that things can change quickly. "It depends on whether it's your day or not," he says. "Everyone wants the raider from the opposing team not to score but if you work and your defence works that day, nothing can stop you."
His personal strategy is simple but effective, a lot like his technique. "Every raider or defender has their favourite moves. It's important to keep a track of when they'll use that move and how to combat it," he explains. "You have to notice the cons too, especially to understand how you can take advantage of their weaknesses."
Even on a day Delhi lost by a huge margin owing to Haryana's smart defensive tactics, Naveen, who spent most of the match on the bench, was the top scorer with 11 points. 'When did he do that?' was a common reaction heard among the crowd. He can't help but thrive on the attention though.
"It feels good when people talk about you," he says, laughing. "I don't know for how long the fame will last but when fans recognise me, click selfies with me toh hero waali feeling aati hai na (I feel like a film hero)."
Starting to play kabaddi from his childhood days, the 'kabaddi kabaddi' chant has even wriggled into the 19-year-old's life off the mat. "When you keep saying that, after a point there's nothing else in your mind but the chant," he says. Talking about one such experience, Naveen goes completely hysterical, his face turning red with embarrassment. "My family members and I sleep together in the same room," he says while hiding his face with his hands. "There was one time that I, in my dreams, started kicking the person next to me saying 'kabaddi kabaddi'. I only realised it the next day when my parents made fun of me. These things keep happening."
At that very moment, you're reminded again that this is just a kid, only in his second PKL season. He might take home the MVP award this season, but at heart, he's an impish teenager who misses having his share of sweets, something Kolkata is popularly known for.
"Don't take those names," he starts laughing at the mere mention of rasgullas and gulaab jamuns - his favourites - and almost helplessly, says, "I have to stay away from sweets to maintain my diet."
Being the youngest in his team, he's had to deal with quite a few pranks because of his sweet tooth. In one such instance, veteran defender Vishal Mane pulled off a 'laddoo prank' on him. "He came back after a puja when I noticed laddoos with him. He then told me that he'd got those made specially for me as I love sweets," he recalls. As it turned out, the laddoo were made of methi (fenugreek). "It was so bitter that I didn't feel like eating anything for the next three days."
An avid movie buff who loves to dance to My name is Lakhan, Naveen doesn't bat an eyelid before reciting his favourite dialogues from Heropanti. A Tiger Shroff fan, he also mentions how much he'd like for him to play his role if a movie were to be made on him. "I was so happy to see him play kabaddi in Student of the Year 2. He did it really well," he says with a now-characteristic grin.
What would the title of his film be then?
"Naveen Express," he beams. It's a common term fans use to describe him. "Aaj kal toh wahi chal rahi hai (That's what they call me these days)."