Ashique Kuruniyan is tense. It is the night before India's Asian Cup opener against Thailand. He knows he is going to be in the playing eleven and he can't sleep. In a few hours, he will partner Sunil Chhetri and lead India's attack for their biggest game in eight years.
Between night and dawn, Ashique gets up six times -- and he is fully awake two hours before he normally gets up. His mind is buzzing and he reminds himself to take in the advice and instructions he has been given. Don't be too excited. Play simple. Don't make a mistake.
When the game is done, in an exhilarating 4-1 win, there is no trace of Ashique's anxious morning. Instead, in just his fourth start for India, he is assured, at the heart of India's first penalty (moved smartly as Chhetri took a throw-in) and makes an unintentional but fortuitous stumble for the vital second goal. Both created in typical style, exactly like coach Stephen Constantine wanted him to do -- "stretch" the defence. Ashique stretched Thailand with his pace and kept them constantly vigilant with his sense of spatial awareness. After that second goal, India were on course, a famous victory in sight, and he was a major part of it.
Ashique, who says he just followed the instructions, tells ESPN. "Chhetri gave me a lot of information before the game -- when to press, where to go when he [Chhetri] moves his position, what to do during a throw-in and what to do during a corner." His nerves prior to kick-off seemed unnecessary -- just like he was asked, he hardly made mistakes and kept it simple. The moment Chhetri netted India's second, Ashique wasn't just excited, rather he was jumping with joy.
From a 12-year-old who helped his father at his grocery store cum sugarcane juice stall in Kerala's Malappuram, to a 21-year-old India international, Ashique's career has raced through hairpin bends. From an 18-year-old loaned by Pune City FC to a European club he had his Villareal C stint ended abruptly with injury in less than three months -- and that was followed by a fitness funk.
It is what happened in between that led to his performance at the Asian Cup, a reminder to Indian football about his capabilities. Pune City CEO Gaurav Modwel knows Ashique well. "He is focused, with a strong urge to learn and improve," Modwel says. "While he is friendly and social, he doesn't allow any negative influence which may harm his football -- like alcohol." Ashique sleeps at 10pm and hardly ever stays up until 11. "Unlike today's generation, he is not hooked on mobile games."
Modwel has also seen him at his worst, unhappy and demotivated after a torn hamstring ended his time at Villarreal. When the Pune City CEO visited Ashique at his modest home in Malappuram, he was shown around the player's school and academies, and was both moved and upset. "After his injury at Villarreal, lack of practice led him to gain a lot of weight," Modwel says. "We were all very concerned as he had slowed down considerably." Ashique was told that he should have shed all his extra weight when he returned to the Pune academy after 90 days.
When Ashique did return to Pune, 11kg lighter, Modwel was impressed since the striker's yo-yo/beep test results went from 22-23 to 27 within 10 days. Modwel calls it, "Incredible... astonishing." None of the other teammates were close. (Virat Kohli's yo-yo scores have been reported somewhere between 19 and 20).
This season at the ISL, Ashique has played 11 matches for Pune City FC with one goal and an assist. His six per cent goal conversion rate means he is still considered a long way from the lethal striker he can be, with finishing being an issue.
"Ashique is very raw, young and strong," Constantine said after the Thailand win. "He is fit but he needs to do a lot of things to be the complete player."
He can beat you with his pace, get into the right positions, pull defenders with him; but when it comes to putting the ball in the back of the net, he falls behind. If finishing is his shortcoming, it is his footballing brain that is his strength and his understanding that he needs to stay committed to his sport and unwavering about what he must do to get ahead.
Like he knocked himself into shape after Villareal, Ashique's biggest dream and his next target is to build a house for his family. It is halfway there already, a testament to his desire to succeed. While there is plenty to do, he knows now that he only has to follow the instruction manual. Both for houses and football. Don't be too excited. Be patient. Play simple. Don't make a mistake.