In the inaugural edition of Indian Super League (ISL) a certain Sandesh Jhingan took the nation by storm with his defensive prowess. He even went on to win the ISL Emerging Player of the Year award at the end of that season. Six years hence, Jhingan has become one of the mainstays of India's backline.
Although it is too early to comment on whether Sumit Rathi can emulate the consistency of Jhingan, the player is definitely following the footsteps of his more illustrated senior. He has made five appearances so far in the ISL and the young lad has hardly put a foot wrong.
Against Odisha, Antonio Habas noticed how Anas Edathodika lunged in with a dangerous tackle on Shubham Sarangi to stop the right back after getting beaten. The Spanish coach reacted at half-time and brought on Rathi replacing Edathodika. Since then, the defender has gone from strength-to-strength and has made the left centre-back position his own.
The Muzaffarnagar-born defender kicked-off his journey from the Chandigarh Football Academy (CFA) as a left-back. Under the watchful eyes of coach Harjinder Singh, he started working on the technical aspects of his game.
"He was a very determined kid with the right attitude. But technically, he had to improve a lot. He would always use his left foot and hardly put his right foot in action. Even when the ball is coming from the right he would position himself in such a way that he could his left leg. In this process, he was losing a few seconds. We worked together and slowly he started improving," said Singh to Goal.
Although Rathi was selected in the preliminary squad for the U17 World Cup, he could not make the final cut. But the youngster did not lose hope and started appearing in trials for various professional clubs. In 2018, he joined ATK's reserve side and played 10 matches in I-League second division. Within a year he was promoted to the senior team.
"There are differences between the two leagues (I-League second division and ISL) but it was important for me to give my 100 per cent in training. The ISL matches are very intense. It is a learning curve for me. I am making mistakes but I am working really hard on those. My teammates give me a lot of confidence. They guide me which helps me improve," said Rathi.
In the reverse fixture against Mumbai City, he was adjudged as the man of the match for putting in an impressive shift at the back. He timed his tackles to perfection and was not afraid to put his body on the line to block a goal-bound shot of Pratik Chaudhari.
But Rathi has already put that in the past and has set his focus on a larger goal. He is well aware that defence is a concern for India coach Igor Stimac. With Jhingan sidelined with a long-term injury and the other centre-backs not being able to fill in his boots, a national team call might not be an unrealistic dream.
His eyes immediately lit up when asked whether he thinks about putting on the blue stripes one day but in the next moment he regained his composure and said, "I have to win the ISL. ATK must finish at the top of the league table. We are only thinking about that for now."