U Mumba’s clash against Bengaluru Bulls was tipped to be Sunday’s marquee clash in Pro Kabaddi. As it panned out, it lived up to the billing as the Bulls and U Mumba played out a thriller while Dabang Delhi’s game against Haryana Steelers turned out to be a one-sided affair.

However, as the crowd grew in number and anticipation at the National Sports Club of India in Mumbai ahead of the match between the home side and defending champions, two raiders, both going by the same name, displayed their true colours in an otherwise pale encounter. They were Naveen Kumar of Dabang Delhi and Naveen of Haryana Steelers.

A game that ended 41-21 in Dabang Delhi’s favour wasn’t about the result, but about the statement made by two players who had left a mark on kabaddi audiences in their debut campaigns last year.

Naveen Kumar was a key component of the Dabang Delhi squad that made it to its first-ever playoffs. Slowly growing into the season, he scored 172 raid points for his side.

Naveen, on the other hand, was one of the brighter spots for Haryana Steelers who had a season to forget, finishing last in Zone A. He could only score 88 raid points last season but playing for a team like Steelers, that tally came with plenty of credit.

On Sunday, both Naveens ran their opposition defences ragged. While Steelers’ Naveen began the day with a touch point on Dabang Delhi captain Joginder Narwal, Delhi’s Naveen responded by sending the Steelers skipper Dharmaraj Cheralathan to the bench in the very next raid. It set the tone for the rest of the match. Veterans made way as prodigies came of age.

Naveen Kumar of Delhi wasn’t tackled on a single occasion in the entire game. He made 15 raids, seven of which were successful, while eight were empty raids. Young players often fail to control their aggression, but Kumar’s empty raid statistic shows that he displayed the maturity of a seasoned raider.

Numerically, the same can’t be said of Steelers’ Naveen who was tackled seven times in the game, but the scenario of the match was against him. With Haryana trailing for most parts of the game, Naveen had to take more risks as the onus to score points always rested with him. He scored over half of his side’s raid points and more than 40% of the team’s total points.

The margin of victory could have been even bigger for Dabang Delhi had Steelers’ Naveen not got the better of seasoned right-corner defender Ravinder Pahal all evening long. Considered one of the most fearsome defenders in that position in kabaddi, Naveen dismissed him on four occasions in the game, while Pahal couldn’t tackle him even once.

“If you offer him your leg, he goes for the thigh hold. But if you go for the bonus, or try for a point from inside, Pahal is too strong to let you score points. So, our plan was to entice him into the diving thigh hold. Naveen executed it to perfection today,” Haryana Steelers coach Rakesh Kumar said after the game.

From Haryana to Pro Kabaddi stardom

Both Naveen Kumar and Naveen hail from Haryana, a state renowned for producing kabaddi greats.

Kumar is from Kungar in Bhiwani district, the same village as Monu Goyat, kabaddi’s most expensive player. His grandfather who was a wrestler tried to introduce him to the sport, but Kumar wasn’t very good at it. At the time in 2011, a coach in his school switched him to kabaddi.

Slowly learning the trade, Kumar was selected to train at SAI, Gandhinagar. He represented SAI in the junior nationals where they won the gold medal. Kumar was impressive in his side’s triumph and caught the eye of Pro Kabaddi scouts who drafted him into the league’s Future Kabaddi Heroes program ahead of season six.

In the camp, he was one of the better performers and thus was added to the New Young Player category in the auction. His name was the first one to be drafted in the auction and Dabang Delhi were his first and final suitors.

The journey for Steelers’ Naveen was slightly more crooked. Hailing from Makauli village in Rohtak district, he started playing the game from an early age along with the many other players from his village. But a health problem forced him to remain away from the sport for a few years.

After recovering from his illness, Naveen resumed kabaddi and just like Kumar, won a gold medal playing for SAI at the junior nationals. That performance helped him land a job in Railways.

His breakthrough moment came in the 2017 Senior National Championships in Hyderabad where he represented Bihar. His team topped the pool and although they couldn’t make a mark in the knockout stages, Naveen’s performance didn’t go unnoticed.

Watched on by then Haryana Steelers’ coach Rambir Singh Khokhar, he was called up by the Steelers at the start of last season to replace the injured Wazir Singh.

Less than a year on from his sudden entry into Pro Kabaddi, Naveen has the best average (10.5) in the league so far this season. Breathing down his neck in the second spot is Kumar with an average of 10.33. It’s still early days in this campaign, and the two Naveens have a long way to go to establish themselves as the cream of the league. But on Sunday, they showed the size of the task is barely bogging them down.