Run, Ashique, run: The Kerala speedster who turned India's premier trickster
If Ashique Kuruniyan's value to the Indian team could be captured in one phase of play, look no further than the first half India played against Thailand at the AFC Asian Cup in January 2019, in Abu Dhabi.
Sunil Chhetri sprinted over to take a throw-in, and as he looked around for support, Ashique, who had started the match in attack in a surprise promotion ahead of Jeje Lalpekhlua, sprinted up to get in line with the central defender marking him. Chhetri released the ball deep into the corner, where Ashique quickly made his way in, dribbled past his marker, and then forced a rash tackle on him as he cut in towards goal.
Chhetri converted the resultant penalty, and India were on their way to a memorable win. At just 21, Ashique could scarcely believe he was representing India on the biggest stage, let alone leading the attack alongside arguably one of Indian football's all-time greats.
"The Asian Cup call-up was a surprise, to be honest," Ashique says. "I had played the [four-nation] Intercontinental Cup before that, but I was not happy with the way I had played."
With the Asian Cup less than a year away, Ashique appeared anxious during that tournament as he put in 40 second-half minutes against Chinese Taipei, played the first half against New Zealand, and made a substitute appearance in the last 10 minutes against Kenya. Yet, what struck then-coach Stephen Constantine was his willingness to run at the opposition.
It is a style of play moulded by accident, and was nearly taken out of his game at Pune FC U-19s by coach Naushad Moosa. Today, that style is what has taken him to the top of the tree among Indian attackers.
Ashique's story begins in an Indian football hotbed, Malappuram in Kerala, but with an atypical genesis.
"I used to sprint the 100m and 200m. My school PT teacher Rafique sir used to put me in those sprints at school and district level, and I would invariably finish first," he remembers. "There was one football tournament around the corner, and the team needed a left winger. So he just put me there, and his simple instruction was, 'Just run as soon as someone puts the ball in, and then send the cross in.' I adapted to that role automatically - run, receive and cross."
Family resources were scarce, but Ashique's older brothers supported his football. His family appreciated the fact that it was virtually impossible to balance football and studies in a country like India. There was no pressure put on the young Ashique to complete high school, and every effort was made to enable him to have a full kit, and access to practice every day.
Malappuram is also the home of sevens football, an unforgiving format which attracts the best talent from the state - and from foreign lands - for a lucrative league played to grounds with overflowing spectators.
That Ashique's game today has a fair amount of running, taking on opposition players, using his upper body strength, is down to lessons learnt from sevens football, which he began playing when he turned 15.
"The game there can be quite rough, and the referee doesn't show you red, because he doesn't carry anything other than yellow," he laughs.
"I used to be a bit tentative in the early days, because you could get elbowed in the face easily. There were players from Nigeria and other foreign countries, and they were all tough opponents to play against. To last on the same field, you had to toughen up. I started playing a little rough myself, just out of pure survival instinct, and then slowly I began to control that better."
At 16, Ashique was playing for Kerala at the national sub-junior (U-17) championships in Bokaro, where Moosa happened to catch his first glance of the budding footballer.
Moosa, who was youth coach at I-League club Pune FC then, has been reunited since with Ashique at Bengaluru FC, where he coaches the reserve team and assists Carles Cuadrat. He had an easy job on hand at convincing Ashique to come to Pune.
With the training facilities at the academy among the best, Ashique's Kerala coach also encouraged him to follow Moosa, with the promise of an I-League career ahead of him as he would be expected to rise up the ranks.
But the transition wasn't a smooth one.
Moosa laughs now, but it was tricky for him to deal with a ward who kept escaping to his hometown all the time, without giving any notice.
It was not homesickness that kept dragging him away, though.
"He would sneak off to Kerala, go play sevens, and make some money," Moosa explains. "I had to sit him down and make him understand that while it's not bad to play more matches; playing sevens could have killed off his career. It's far too rough, and that's when he realised he had to focus on his game."
Pune FC, then under Dutch coach Mike Snoei, were implementing a possession-based style of playing, and Ashique's tendency to dribble and hold the ball incensed Moosa in the beginning.
"I had to tell him that while dribbling was his strength, he needed to pass also," says Moosa, who then happened to attend a FIFA coaches' refresher course where the importance of 1v1 contests and good dribbling skills in the modern footballer were discussed.
"As a coach, you play a big role in the development of a player. We make mistakes, and then we have to accept that and learn from them. I realised somewhere that I was killing his game. Then I let him play his game. If I had stopped him from dribbling, I don't know what kind of a player he would have been today."
At 17, Ashique was featuring on the right wing for Pune FC during the U-19 I-League in 2014-15. Pune were zonal champions by a massive distance, and only just lost out on the title to AIFF's Elite Academy. Ashique scored two goals himself, but Pune netted 47 across 15 matches through the tournament, as him cutting in from the right and shooting opened up scoring opportunities for team-mates all over the pitch.
India's U-19 coach Syed Sabir Pasha was also in attendance during one of those matches that season, and he would pick Ashique for his squad. Later that year, India U-19 played a pre-season friendly with Bengaluru FC at the Bangalore Football Stadium, but Ashique failed to make the starting XI. A few of his team-mates were scouted and subsequently signed up by the then I-League club, but Chhetri was impressed with what he saw of Ashique that day.
Even as Pune FC shut down their first team, the academy went to Indian Super League (ISL) club FC Pune City, and that was the next stage of development for Ashique -- spending part of the 2016-17 season playing with the third team of Villarreal.
"Spanish football is all about touches, and being there and getting to understand their tiki-taka brand of football helped my practice immensely," he says.
Returning to Pune and getting blooded in the ISL helped Ashique improve on the gains made by training in Spain. He considers every stage that he has played at as a learning experience in his growth as a footballer.
"I never dreamed of playing professional football, or for the national team," he says. "I used to watch matches and India players, but when I started out, I only aimed for the next level. When I was playing in my village, the big dream was to play for the district side. When I was able to make that step up, I aspired to play for my state.
"You can never say that you have learnt the most at one place - you get to learn valuable lessons wherever you go. You learn from new coaches, new colleagues, all the time."
Chhetri, who is already looking forward to combining with Ashique and Udanta Singh for Bengaluru this domestic season, says Ashique's greatest attribute is how he never lets the occasion get to him.
"He doesn't know what pressure means. He's not scared of anyone, so it doesn't bother him whether he's playing Oman, Qatar or Bangladesh," says Chhetri.
"If you ask him before a game, he won't tell you about permutations and combinations, how many points, which defender, anything. He's so honest, and so naïve, that's great for the team. Because he is raw, he is fast, and he just goes and does what he wants."
Moosa has an interesting insight into what separates Ashique from a lot of other players.
"Normally, we tell defenders that when any striker comes to them, they should get a hard tackle in early, so that dissuades the attacker from coming close to them. But with Ashique, he is a striker who scares the defenders. He is like a bull going at the defence, and he'll take them on straight away. The way he was playing [in Pune FC U-19] I was sure he would make it big."
Moosa, however, warns that Ashique the teenager always wanted to do things in a hurry -- grab the next big offer coming his way, for instance -- and needed some counselling to understand that he needed to be at a club where he would get game time.
That rush also shows up in his playing style, as was evident in the UAE in January. Ashique began like a runaway train in the Thailand game, harried the hosts' defence with his relentless energy in a 2-0 defeat, and appeared to tire out by the time India played a crucial Bahrain game.
"He plays with the same pace and intensity throughout the 90 minutes," says Moosa, who explained that Ashique's recent groin injury ahead of the 0-0 draw against Qatar was also down to his pace, sudden changes of body position, and the stress the lower half of his body takes in international football.
"Till the time you are playing U-18 and U-19 football, it's fine, but you need to learn how to take the load and how to recover when playing top teams.
"He has to learn how much to run, when and how to accelerate. Slowly, he'll understand all of this, to improve his game and stay injury-free in the long run."