Before the India debut, before the move to Villareal’s (La Liga) third team, and before being a regular for Bengaluru FC in the Indian Super League (ISL), a typical training week for Ashique Kuruniyan at the Malabar Special Police (MSP) academy in Malappuram would include a lot of running. He would run up and down hills, he would run on roads, he would do sprint drills on training day. Even his gym workouts would include explosive training. This confused him for a long time, until he finally appreciated the benefits of all that early endurance building.
“The strategy then was to keep the score tight till 60 minutes, 0-0 at least, and then attack opponents for the next 30. We’d go to a hill in front of the hostel and do incline training there at least once a week. Twice a week we would go road running for 10kms. I didn’t know why we were doing that weekly but when I became a professional, I got to know that a player runs around 12kms in a 90-minute game, and that early training made it easier for me later in life,” says the 24-year-old, who played all three of India’s recent World Cup 2022 & Asian Cup 2023 joint qualifiers (against Qatar, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan).
Kuruniyan, who plays as a left winger, and sometimes as a left wing-back, is now a bona fide pace merchant. His game is all about direct running, trying to exploit the free spaces left by teams down the left wing. His ability to also play as a striker, apart from all the wing-play makes him a coach’s dream. He had a curtailed 2020-21 ISL season after suffering multiple fractures after a collision with Jerry Mahwingthanga during a game against Odisha FC, but has made a strong comeback, a protective black face mask lending more menace to his marauding figure on the left wing.
“He was always fast, even though he has had to add a lot more to his game,” says his former coach Binoy C James, who was responsible for the gruelling training sessions at MSP that Kuruniyan now credits for his fitness. “In those days, one coach would do all the work: strength, conditioning, tactics, and training. So while running was part of most of the drills, it was also based on the time of the season. All those incline runs work on endurance, the road running on stamina, and gym training was based on speed and strength,” says James.
Kuruniyan started off as a sprinter, representing his school at district level in 100m, 200m, and long jump. He had to drop out of school for a while to help his parents at their sugarcane shop but his natural athleticism helped him maintain his sporting talents. He shone at local tournaments in football-crazy Malappuram in Kerala, and before long, someone was telling him to run down the left wing as fast as he could before crossing the ball. There have been sacrifices he’s had to make to keep up with the demands of professional football, but Kuruniyan doesn’t mind.
“I grew up on parathas and biryani. Breakfast would be idli or dosa. Now I’ve had to give up on regularly eating rice. But I cannot get emotional about food because football has given me everything and this is the one career I have,” he says.
It’s not just food though. Kuruniyan’s quick changes in direction and pace means taking extra care of the hamstrings and adductor muscles. He’s had injuries on both and follows a routine set by his club that works on his weaknesses. One of those weaknesses has also been haste.
“He plays with the same pace and intensity throughout the 90 minutes. Till the time you are playing U-18 and U-19 football, it's fine, but you need to learn how to take the load and how to recover when playing top teams. He has to learn how much to run, when and how to accelerate. Slowly, he'll understand all of this, to improve his game and stay injury-free in the long run,” said Bengaluru FC’s current assistant manager Naushad Moosa in a 2019 interview to ESPN. Moosa has worked with Kuruniyan at Pune FC and at Bengaluru.
While Kuruniyan is a more sophisticated footballer now, he doesn’t shy away from using his speed. “In my head, when I decide to chase a player or a ball down, I will do everything to get there and probably will get there,” he says. “It feels nice when the coach acknowledges my strong points during team meetings. Everyone has different qualities but the importance of speed is very high in modern football.”
Having already played 21 times for India, Kuruniyan wants to switch focus to working on his finishing so he can play more often as a striker, his favoured position. “My favourite tactical drills are when there are challenging runs to be made forward before beating a man and trying to finish. Those, and the shorter, quicker 5 v 5 or 6 v 6 games.” That’s not surprising given his skills were honed in the sevens format ( 7v7). He was so obsessed with these at one point that when he was at the Pune academy, Moosa had to ask him not to go away unannounced to Kerala to play a sevens tournament.
Kuruniyan’s game includes a lot of knocking the ball past an oncoming defender, and then accelerating past him to reach the ball. “You could say mujhe zyaada tension nai hota when I have to take someone on or backtrack in a defensive transition.”
This comes from a mentality that even Sunil Chhetri talks about. “He is fast and powerful and is scared of no one. He just plays with the motive of going forward. If he does what we think he can do and learns quickly, you will see a proper superstar for the country,” the India captain had said two years ago.
Confidence is an aspect of fitness that is often overlooked, but does Kuruniyan ever fear losing his speed? “It’s not as if slower players don’t play football. I will adjust because for me, it’s as thrilling to play up front as it is to defend in one-on-one situations. I love winning those challenges.”
Bengaluru have appointed the Italian Marco Pezzaiuoli as their head coach after parting ways with Spaniard Carles Cuadrat. Pezzaiuoli will bring with him new techniques, tactics, and methods. But in Kuruniyan, he will find a fearless player who can play in multiple positions, and whose skill and pace can still be paired with more ruthlessness in the final third.
Kuruniyan’s fitness story must not be credited to just natural traits. He just didn’t know that he was working on his speed and power every time he ran for his school, worked at the sugarcane shop all day before playing in the field, when he was going up and down hills and eventually started doing the same in the Indian football circuit. His story is about belief, about relentlessness, and eventually, about the maturity to work not just on his ability, but also on his weaknesses.
Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator and writer.