By the fourth minute, Ashique Kuruniyan had stamped his authority in Guwahati. In the 24th, he was felled leading to a free-kick from which India scored. Kuruniyan was winging it down the left flank and Oman’s right-side midfielder Raed Saleh and right back Saad Mukhaini were often left trailing in his slipstream. Saleh was substituted at half-time.
This was Kuruniyan’s first competitive game in almost seven months and in the 78 minutes he got, he said, “I had to play like it is the last game of my life.” A knee injury on February 24 during the 2018-19 Indian Super League (ISL) game had taken Kuruniyan out. Last August, the man from Mallapuram, Kerala, joined ISL champions Bengaluru FC on a four-year deal.
Playing sevens (a seven-a-side version that is popular in Kerala) helped. “Sevens toughens you as a player and that was my biggest takeaway. You just have to conquer fear to play sevens because injuries are never far away. It is a format fraught with risks,” he says in an interview. Kuruniyan’s injury meant India’s new coach Igor Stimac couldn’t see him in the King’s Cup and the Inter-continental Cup.
Stimac called him for the preparatory camp in August ahead of India’s World Cup qualifiers against Oman and Qatar and in less than three weeks, he had seen enough to start Kuruniyan in Guwahati. Kuruniyan was rested against Qatar because Stimac said he hadn’t recovered enough to play two games in five days but played every minute against Bangladesh. India play Afghanistan in Dushanbe on Thursday and Oman in Muscat on Tuesday. For Kuruniyan, 14 India matches old, it will be the first time he is getting ready for international games without a preparatory camp.
“We are playing matches now (in ISL 6). The schedule is going to be challenging but it is how modern football runs. We have two points from three matches (from draws against Qatar and Bangladesh) and we need some positive results,” he says. “I think the team has played well. In international matches, one mistake can undo all the hard work and you may have nothing to show for (India lost 1-2 to Oman after leading till the 82nd minute). So, we will need to reduce mistakes in the next two games.”
It helps India players that Luka Radman, the 62-year-old Croat who is the strength and conditioning coach, keeps in touch when they are at clubs, says Kuruniyan. “He gives us diet plans and lists training to strengthen muscles specific to our needs,” he says. And there is India captain Sunil Chhetri whom Bengaluru FC players can turn to. “He knows a lot about nutrition and is always willing to answer our questions,” says Kuruniyan. “He (Chhetri) is a legend. He has been playing for India for so long that he has a lot to teach us.”
Kuruniyan is 22 and has one international goal, against Sri Lanka in the 2018 SAFF Championship, scored exactly a year before he played Oman on September 5. He is yet to score for Bengaluru FC in four games—or make an assist—where he has also played as left back. “It is not too different from playing as left winger. The accent, for me, is to go on attack,” says Kuruniyan. “Ashique is the kind of player who can help us in both, attack and defence. His talent, pace and guile gives us the right kind of selection problems, but more importantly, gives us options,” Carles Cuadrat, the Bengaluru FC coach, has said.
In their ISL opener, against NorthEast United, Kuruniyan, playing as left back, ran half the pitch, dribbled two players and cut in but shot wide. “I need to work a lot on my finishing and passing in the final third,” he says. Watching videos of Mo Salah and Lionel Messi, therefore, is more than a pastime. “Like me, their favoured foot is the left foot. They are at a different level but I see their videos regularly in the hope that I can learn. Both are also very calm and that I something I really like. They never seem hassled when they have the ball,” he says.
Kuruniyan was around 12 when he took to football. The journey to being a sought-after attacking midfielder—who can also play as full back—has had stops at the Kerala State Sports Council’s sports hostel, the now-defunct I-league club Pune FC academy and FC Pune City from where he got his first senior international break in 2018 and for whom he played 1314 minutes in the ISL5 scoring two goals and making three assists. He played nine games for FC Pune City in 2017-18, scoring once and making an assist.
Udanta Singh, Lallianzuala Chhangte and Kuruniyan are among the fastest wide players in Asia, Chhetri told this paper in August. “So we have that outlet and that gives me a lot of confidence,” he said.