You cannot contain Asish Rai. The 22-year-old, who plays for Hyderabad FC in the Indian Super League (ISL), is unstoppable when in full tilt. Playing at right back, Rai has been one of the most consistently impressive Indian players in the league: defending hard, blocking crosses, and joining the attack when the team is rushing forward in what is Hyderabad’s attractive brand of football under Spanish coach Manolo Marquez. One of the reasons Marquez can let his team play with attacking freedom is how much ground Rai and his full-back partner on the left Akash Mishra can cover.
According to analytics from Stats Perform, in six matches this season, Rai has done more than 150 sprints, his fastest ones regularly clocking more than 30kmph. He covers around 8.5km on average over 90 minutes, but a lot of this comes from the bursts he makes down the wings. His average sprints over the course of six games are 650m per match. In comparison, his idol Kyle Walker (right back for Manchester City), has clocked a top speed of 37km/hour.
“I started working on my sprinting technique about a couple of years ago. I used to watch Kyle Walker’s technique, then read about it and watched a lot of videos, and worked on the hand movement while running, along with working on explosive power to gain speed,” says Rai, whose team sit third in the ISL table having played one game fewer than the top two (Mumbai City in 1st, and Jamshedpur FC in 2nd).
“I needed to know things about taking off from a static position, the power required for it, and the physics behind it,” Rai adds. It helps that he is not fussed about food discipline at all. “I’ve never liked sweet things or oil or spice in my food. So it’s easy for me to eat clean. Oats and muesli are favourites, but I also experiment with how the body responds to what I eat. Fancy food has never interested me,” he says.
He jokes that the only vanity he suffers from is building abs and biceps. Apart from that, Rai closely follows Hyderabad’s strength and conditioning coach Jose Carlos Barroso’s workouts. “For anyone who wants to work on speed, I would recommend two combinations. The first one is hip thrusts and horizontal single leg jumps. These work on your hips and glutes and generate acceleration. The other combination is the squat with focus on high speed concentrics (when you push yourself back up from a squatting position) followed by vertical jumps. These work on knee strength and help you maintain speed once you’re in motion,” says Barroso.
But Rai is much more than just a speed merchant. He has made 22 successful tackles and 12 interceptions so far this season, and regularly joins with the midfield in build-up play. In one of the finer team goals of the season, it was his deft touch that set off Nikhil Poojary down the right to cross it in for Joel Chianese’s headed goal against FC Goa in a 1-1 draw on 18 December.
“The coach has always praised my ability to keep football simple, and that is a compliment because it’s the toughest thing to do: keep things simple,” says Rai. He also adds that he is working on his final product, because getting into attacking areas is not a problem, it is “my crossing and the final decision and the final ball that I am trying to improve.”
Another compliment to his positioning is the number of fouls he has committed in six games: just nine. Rai’s explosive power not only helps him generate speed, it also makes him pretty decent in the air. He’s won 60% of all his aerial duels, but the most important part of his game is how much he enjoys the physical side of it: “I like putting in a good tackle and an interception more than a good cross. The 1v1 duels, that is what I look forward to the most in a game of football.”
Rai’s inherent desire to work hard, learn about technique, and follow what seems like a simple but disciplined workout pattern has impressed India head coach Igor Stimac. And while he hasn’t made his debut for the country yet, the sheer amount of effort he puts into sport means it won’t be long before we see him in India’s blue.
Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator and writer.