From the dusty fields of Bhatkal to the mats of Bengaluru: The story of Bengaluru Bulls' local lad Harish Naik
The Pro Kabaddi League has emerged as one of the biggest platforms in Indian sport that has marked a pathway for youngsters in the field of kabaddi to brush shoulders with some of the biggest names in the world and at the same time, carve out a career in the game.
With the sixth season of the league currently in full flow, the ongoing edition has already brought out some of the best talents all around the country, with a number of youngsters earning fat contracts through the 'New Young Players' category.
One such man, who has had his fair share of experience in the league but has come to prominence this season is Harish Naik, a 21-year-old raider, who has contributed in vital measure to the Bengaluru Bulls' blazing run this season.
Hailing from Uttara Kannada's Bhatkal, the exciting youngster has earned a couple of starts this season that has come as a result of his top performances, mostly as a substitute last season.
While the art of picking up raid points seems to be a God-given gift to Naik, it is by self-admittance that the youngster claims that he knew zilch about the game, with his focus solely on enjoying a good game of cricket close to six years back as he enjoyed opening the batting for his local team.
"In my village, I started off by playing cricket and when I reached the 10th standard, a new sports club opened up near home. With Kabaddi introduced as a new sport, the coach was scouting for youngsters with a tall reach. With his demand suiting my personality, I was first introduced to the game through the involvement with the club"
While a small foray toward the game did not spark interest in the game for the lanky youngster, he claims that the issues pertaining to the conditions of the grounds, the difficulty he faced in adjusting to the surroundings almost took him away from the game.
"Initially, the grounds back in my hometown were not well maintained. I used to pick up a lot of injuries and I became afraid to play. I would escape from practice sessions but the coach Umesh Naik would find me and pull me back to the ground as he knew I could use my height to good effect."
Yet, for a lanky youngster who comes from a joint family in which there is always constant pressure for the triumph of academics over sports, Naik sheds light on the tongue-lashes he had to face from his family.
"My family comes from an academic background. I was not inclined too much towards studies and would love playing. In the beginning, my family was not too happy with my career choice but after a good performance in the district level, they felt that I was walking into the right path in my life."
Having ignited the hidden spirit of kabaddi in his life, Harish Naik was taken to the Sports Authority of India in Dharwad, where he claims that he learned more on the tricks of the trade and in the process, got to watch his inspiration behind taking up the game, Shabeer Bappu.
"After a few local tournaments, there were selection trials at Sports Authority of India in Dharwad. My height yet again came to my advantage and I joined the team, where I played for four years. A state-wide tournament in Mangalore was where I exhibited my best performance that led me to meet BC Ramesh Sir," as he adds, "Shabeer Bappu was a very respected man there and I learned the art of becoming a left raider from him."
For most fans of the Karnataka kabaddi team, coach BC Ramesh is a familiar figure. One of India's kabaddi's veterans and an Arjuna awardee, Ramesh has been in the trade for close to 40 years now and Naik leaves no stone unturned in crediting his coach for his success.
"My performance in Mangalore was a big turning point. Post that, Ramesh Sir gave me a place in the State Bank of Mysore team, which had the likes of Shabeer Bappu and Jeeva Kumar. From there, I played in the senior nationals and a good show at a tournament in Bagalkote earned me a contract with the Bengaluru Bulls as a youth player."
Naik has played four seasons with the Bulls but none more successful than the ongoing sixth season. Commenting on his emotions on earning a couple of starts, Naik says,
"Compared to all seasons, I have got the most opportunities this season since we have BC Ramesh Sir as the assistant coach. I used to find communicating in Hindi tough but with Ramesh Sir in the team, communication has become easier for me."
While Harish Naik has earned a few starts courtesy of some strong shows in the previous season, he showers praise on his skipper at the Bengaluru Bulls in Rohit Kumar for showing faith in him at the right time.
"Rohit Kumar was the one who gave me a chance to play. Since Kashiling Adake picked up an injury, Rohit was the one who asked the coach to give me a chance to prove myself. He knew that I had played well in my limited chances last season and I needed more experience going into the playoffs."
Adding emphasis on skipper Rohit Kumar's influence on his style of play, Naik claims that his captain's skills have had a good change on the 21-year old's game.
"Rohit's observational skills are of the highest level. He knows where exactly to pick up points and when he teaches me those skills, it makes my job of picking up raid points that much easier," and builds on as he says, "He is one such player who is technically very strong and that has rubbed off on me. Earlier, I used to pick up points only through hand touches but he is the one who taught me the skill of picking up the bonus points."
Quizzed on the team's overall success this season that has seen them register an unprecedented run, Naik does not think twice as he boils it down to an all-round effort.
"This season, we have been playing as an all-round team. Our defense has improved, which is a major driving factor for our success. Last season, Rohit Kumar was the lone man who performed but this season, Ramesh Sir has ensured that he points out each mistake in every game, which we assess and ensure we do not repeat the same mistakes."
With the team's success mantra rolled out, Naik sports a wide grin as he deals with the recipe to his success,
"Before the start of the season, Ramesh Sir ensured that we were prepared well ahead with some extra practice sessions and matches. He laid emphasis on the improvements that I had to make to my game, which gave me extra confidence to confidently go about my game during the matches."
One of the better-known raiders in Karnataka with his pyrotechnics at the local level, Harish Naik has already played in two nationals at Hyderabad and Jodhpur, apart from one South Junior and Department Nationals as well. Yet, without a shadow of a doubt, he focuses on the PKL, that has given him a new lease of life.
"The Pro Kabaddi League has completely changed my outlook to life. I get a lot more recognition now and it has also helped me financially. My skills on the mat have also given me a job at the Railways in Sikandrabad."
As a final statement, Naik, who considers his coach BC Ramesh as the 'pillar of his life' claims that the veteran has put his blood, sweat, and tears into forming a formidable Karnataka team, which he believes is capable of posing more than just a stiff competition to any opposition on the day.
"The Karnataka team is very strong at the moment. In the senior nationals, we were unfortunate to lose by one point to Maharashtra but our team is filled with experience. Prashant Rai, Shabeer Bappu are all quality raiders while the defense is manned by Jeeva Kumar and other experienced players. Coach BC Ramesh has built a fantastic team and we will surely pose a stiff challenge to any opposition."
With a good season with the Bengaluru Bulls, Harish Naik can certainly turn out to be a youngster to watch out for in the near future.