The Indian Super League (ISL) has gone from strength to strength since its inception in 2014. Unsurprisingly, the worth of the Indian players involved has been on an upward trajectory since that first season. The domestic players have evolved from mere supporting pillars to vital cogs in the ISL.
In the process, we have witnessed several reputed names fail at times. A sudden move to a big club or vast expectations led to the downfall of many an experienced player in the cash-rich league.
On the other hand, there have been players who adapted to the ISL spotlight like a duck takes to water. A single season in the competition was enough for them to grab attention.
In this article, we take a look at the best Indian debutants from each season of the ISL.
Best Indian debutants from each ISL season:
#1 2014 - Sandesh Jhingan
Sandesh Jhingan was arguably the best Indian player of the 2014 season, the first edition of the ISL. While there were some names who performed better in spurts, Jhingan took up a crucial role and did it to perfection for Kerala Blasters during the entirety of the season.
The inaugural ISL season saw most of the vital roles in teams taken up by foreign players. The teams could field up to six foreigners on the field at a time. As a result, there were only a few Indian players who were assigned duties of significant importance by the managers.
Sandesh Jhingan stood out from the rest and played 14 of the 17 matches for the eventual finalists. He operated primarily as a right-back but was also deployed as a centre-back and left-back by David James.
Jhingan was a force to be reckoned with right from the start. He played a crucial part in the Blasters conceding the least goals (11) in the league stage. The defender deservedly bagged the 'ISL Emerging Player of the Season' award.
If not Jhingan, Jeje Lalpekhlua can also be considered a strong contender for the 'Best Debutant' tag. However, Jhingan gets the nod, owing to him steering his team to the brink of the title.
#2 2015 - Sunil Chhetri
The second season of the ISL saw a new set of players joining the competition through the auction and the draft. The most prominent name among them was Indian skipper Sunil Chhetri. The striker was picked up by Mumbai City for a price tag of Rs 1.2 crore.
Chhetri started off with a brilliant brace against Delhi Dynamos in his second game in the competition. He scored in the next two ISL games as well, including a hat-trick against FC Goa - the first-ever triple by an Indian player in the ISL. The talisman never looked out of touch in a star-studded Mumbai team managed by Nicolas Anelka.
By the end of the season, Chhetri had netted 7 goals and assisted a goal in 11 matches. He was third on the list of top goal-scorers and was an ever-present figure in attack for the Islanders.
Though another Indian player in the form of Anas Edathodika for Delhi Dynamos too had a memorable ISL debut in 2015, the defender's performances were a shade behind Chhetri's prolific goal-scoring.
#3 2016 - Kean Lewis
Kean Lewis' addition to this list might come as a surprise to many. Though the midfielder is not a commonly heard name in ISL today, the case was different in his debut season in 2016. The Thane-born player joined Delhi Dynamos on loan from Mohun Bagan and was an instant hit in the ISL.
Lewis played 14 of 16 games for his club that edition, recording four goals and two assists. He was deployed mostly for attacking duties on the wings. Lewis was, however, equally effective playing as a wide midfielder. Even after not scoring in his last five games, Kean Lewis had a memorable stint with Dynamos.
The fact that he played alongside star players like Marcelinho and Florent Malouda made him an impressive debutant. However, he didn't receive the deserved plaudits. The 27-year-old was Gianluca Zambrotta's first-choice Indian pick and played a pivotal role in the team's route to the semi-finals.
Lewis is an arguable selection on the list given Jerry Lalrinzuala's impressive ISL debut in the same season. Lalrinzuala was part of a below-par Chennaiyin FC defence that conceded the joint-most goals in the season. Meanwhile, Lewis had a crucial role in Delhi emerging as the highest-scoring team in the campaign.
#4 2017/18 - Lalruatthara
Lalruatthara comes as an unsurprising name given he was a celebrated hit after the 2017/18 ISL season. Despite not being a regular starter for Kerala Blasters in recent times, he was the best Indian debutant in the fourth season of the ISL.
After a loan spell to Delhi Dynamos in 2016 where he did not play a single match, Lalruatthara joined Kerala Blasters in 2017. He started from the first match and played every minute for the club barring a one-game suspension for collecting four yellow cards.
The Mizoram-born player mostly played at left-back but also registered a few outings at the heart of the defence. He recorded 14 interceptions, 59 clearances and 85 tackles (most by an Indian) in 17 ISL games that season. Lalruatthara was one of the few positives from Blasters' dismal season. He was adjudged the 'ISL Emerging Player of the Season' - second for a Kerala Blasters player in four years.
To pick between the Blasters defender and Seriton Fernandes was a difficult challenge as both had impressive debuts that season. Although Fernandes featured in the ISL semi-finals for FC Goa, Lalruatthara gets the nod for his individual heroics at the back.
#5 2018/19 - Raynier Fernandes
The 2018/19 season of ISL was renowned for its entertaining final between Bengaluru FC and FC Goa but not for the stellar outings of debutants. Raynier Fernandes of Mumbai City was one of the very few newbies who had a stint to remember in that edition of the ISL.
The Islanders signed the midfielder from I-League giants Mohun Bagan. He made his ISL debut as a substitute in the team's opening match and registered his first start in the next game. After missing three matches due to injury, Fernandes featured in all the remaining ISL games that season.
The local lad became a hit after being deployed as a regular in central midfield. Statistically, the 24-year-old returned with two goals and an assist at the offensive end while he also aided his team with 34 tackles defensively.
Raynier Fernandes had a crucial role in midfield, connecting the defence with an in-form Modou Sougou. His ability to carry the ball from the centre and retain possession attracted praise.
Other notable names who shined as debutants in that ISL season were Dheeraj Singh and Michael Soosairaj. However, Singh failed to reflect his heroics on paper with clean sheets, and Soosairaj fell short of goals in the campaign.
#6 2019/20 - Sumit Rathi
Unlike in the previous season, the recently concluded edition of the ISL saw several debutants shine for their respective ISL clubs. Among these players, Sumit Rathi, arguably, emerged as the best newbie of the season. After a scintillating performance with the ATK Reserves, he was promoted to the senior team prior to the 2019/20 campaign.
Sumit Rathi made his debut in the fifth game of the 2019-20 ISL season, against Odisha FC. He was an unused substitute for the next three games. However, since mid-December, the defender did not miss a game for the eventual ISL champions. The 18-year-old's only time out was in the second-half in ATK's final league game of the season.
The AIFF Elite Academy product was deployed on the left-side of Habas' three-man defence. Rathi did not disappoint when asked to guard the wide areas of the flanks too. Sumit Rathi showcased excellent defensive traits during pres suresituations. He ended the season with 27 tackles, 19 interceptions and 115 clearances.
Sumit Rathi was rightly awarded the 'ISL Emerging Player of the Season' ahead of other contenders like Suresh Singh Wangjam. Jessel Carneiro of Kerala Blasters also had a memorable ISL debut last season. But a champion tag helps Rathi get the nod.