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HomeSportsFootballWith speed and attitude, Ashique Kuruniyan leaves a mark

With speed and attitude, Ashique Kuruniyan leaves a mark

There are things about Ashique Kuruniyan that could seem difficult to reconcile. His playlist has Hindi film songs you would associate more with Sunil Chhetri and not with someone who at 24 is almost 14 years younger. A reserved man who prefers being by himself, Kuruniyan is a footballer who wants to be involved in every action on the pitch.

Like he was on Saturday when India head coach Igor Stimac preferred Kuruniyan’s speed to Brandon Fernandes’ ability with set-pieces which often turn into assists. In the first minute, Liston Colaco took a Jeakson Singh pass and played it through for the man from Mallapuram whose run left Afghanistan right-back David Najem trailing in his wake. When the clock showed 2:26, Kuruniyan was in his half dispossessing Faysal Shayesteh. At 83:33, he was sprinting to aid left-back Akash Mishra who had overrun the ball and winning the free-kick which Sunil Chhetri converted. 89:20 and India, sucker-punched by an equaliser following poor set-piece defending, saw Kuruniyan motoring so fast that Omid Musawi was booked for pulling him down. And when it was 90:26, Kuruniyan retrieved an overcooked pass from Udanta Singh, kept the ball and played into space for Sahal Abdul Samad to score in the 2-1 win.

“He was my man of the match,” Stimac told this paper on Sunday. “It was clear from our analysis that we need Ashique to torture their full back (Najem) who is more attacking than the one on their right.”

Of his 24 internationals since debuting in 2018, Kuruniyan rated India’s 4-1 win against Thailand in the 2019 Asian Cup finals as his best match but said Saturday’s would be “one of the best.” It was a game he “enjoyed a lot,” said Kuruniyan. Like IM Vijayan, Kuruniyan’s Hindi has lots of pauses and there was one when asked whether he was tired. “If you are playing well, you are never tired, not when you are wearing the jersey of the national team.” Being part of the India squad, he said, is reason to be “khush”; being in the starting XI “bahut khush.”

With Liston Colaco being India’s form player on the left, Kuruniyan didn’t start against Cambodia. Stimac moved Colaco to behind Chhetri to accommodate the player who could leave Bengaluru FC this season as a left-side attacker. “We wanted to keep Liston in the channels where he feels great,” said Stimac, the Croat adding that he was happy with how Colaco adapted.

That is how it usually is with Kuruniyan, who loves watching videos of Mo Salah and Lionel Messi, his favourite player. He hasn’t sealed a place in the first 11 but usually makes an impact when given a chance. Like against Oman in Guwahati in September 2019 when Raed Saleh, Oman’s right-side midfielder, had to be substituted at half-time because he couldn’t deal with a player who grew up playing Sevens ( a seven-a-side game hugely popular in Kerala) and was groomed in a Kerala state sports council hostel. That too was Kuruniyan’s first match in nearly seven months after a knee injury.

It hasn’t been his only brush with injury. In 2020-21, Kuruniyan’s face was broken in three places. “His first message in the team’s messaging group was something like, ‘guys, keep doing your thing, I will be back soon,’” said Kunaal Majgaonkar, Bengaluru FC’s media manager. He did after a few months, wearing a face shield.

“That was difficult,”said Kuruniyan on Sunday. “The shield reduced my vision but I was told to wear it for six months,” he said. “Even now when I turn to that side while sleeping it hurts, but when I am playing, I don’t think about it. You can’t, really.”

Kuruniyan scored two self-goals during a difficult ISL season for Bengaluru FC in 2021-22. “It is the kind of thing that could really hurt a player who at left back could have felt he was being played out of position,” said Majgaonkar. “But Ashique took it in his stride. He never complains, always gives his best in training sessions; so much so that Sunil Chhetri often has good things to say about his attitude,” he said of the player who digs Kishore Kumar and Mohammed Rafi songs.

Kuruniyan and Manvir Singh typified the character Stimac spoke about glowingly on Saturday. They were like Forrest Gump on the Salt Lake stadium pitch, always running at the red shirts and trying to compensate with enterprise what they might have lacked in excellence. It was an attitude that fetched the late winner for a team often leaking late goals. It is an attitude they need to carry to Tuesday where a win against Hong Kong will help seal the top spot in group D.

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