V.R. Raghunath, the hockey player from Karnataka, has come to hold a crucial place in the Indian hockey team

Even before he was announced as Player of the Tournament, last week’s Asia Cup felt like the time V.R. Raghunath broke through. It can be inaccurate to pinpoint one single competition or moment as the watershed in a player’s career but there is a recognition after Malaysia that Raghunath is now the Indian hockey team’s principal defender.

“It was a team effort; it was not about any one individual,” he protests when congratulated. “If one player made mistakes the others were there to cover for him.”

With his drag flicks, Raghunath scored six goals as India (despite defeat to South Korea in the final) all but assured itself of a berth at next year’s World Cup – a target that once seemed distant.

That he could strike the ball blisteringly hard was never in doubt. But as the 24-year-old admits, he has not always been very cautious in defence. “I have realised that I am a defender first,” he says, candidly. “The drag flick is only a second option. For the last two years, I’ve been trying to improve as a defender. I’m still lacking in certain areas but I work on it all the time. I should defend for 70 minutes; I will score when I get opportunities: this is my new mantra.” It is one that has served him well. This time, with the experienced Sandeep Singh out of the squad and apprehension in some quarters, Raghunath not only scored his goals, but also knit a safe partnership with Rupinderpal Singh at the back.

“Ours is a friendly combination,” he says. “There was no competition between us; each wanted the other to score more. The coach had made us work on a few things, like our concentration when taking the drag flick. We did well.”

Part of the reason for this appreciation Raghunath has suddenly drawn is his emergence as the senior partner in defence, and the manner in which he has borne this responsibility. True, the opposition was not European, but previous Indian sides have fallen before less.

Those unconvinced by Raghunath’s place in the side have begun to come around. The Karnataka player now seems smarter, and perhaps crucially, at ease with himself. “Earlier, I used to pick up many, many cards,” he says. “Now I control it a lot. I’ve matured. I used to get emotional but now I keep my cool. The team requires something of me and I cannot let them down.”

This calm has also to do, it would seem, with his own standing in the team – two things mutually dependent. Where he was in and out of the national side until three or four years ago, Raghunath is now a fixture within. “I was not performing consistently earlier,” he confesses. “But for the last two years, I’ve been playing well. I know I should maintain an average, a certain minimum standard below which I cannot fall. I think I’ve done that.”

He has clearly demanded much of himself. In the months leading up to the 2012 Olympics, Raghunath set about burning off the excess weight he visibly carried. He dropped over six kilos in two months, staying off rice, sweetmeats and fried snacks – a decision that didn’t come easy. He hasn’t touched any of the stuff since. “I’ve become very conscious about my diet,” he says. “I can’t take any risks. My body is such that I tend to put on weight quickly. Only when you’re fit can you run wherever you want and I want to stay fit no matter what.”

The current coach Roelant Oltmans, a hardened veteran on the international hockey circuit, worked with Raghunath during the Hockey India League earlier in the year, and has increasingly placed much faith in his defender. “He gets more out of players than they think is possible themselves,” Raghunath says of the Dutchman. “He gets them to perform above their level. He motivates us so much. He gets 15-20 per cent extra out of each of us.”

That the coach is the brooding martinet he appears from the outside is a suggestion quickly dismissed by Raghunath. “No, no,” he laughs. “It’s not that he’s strict. He just expects us all to be responsible.”

Raghunath’s exploits at the Asia Cup were not a thorough surprise but there lingers a sense that he has turned a corner now. For a national side desperately in need of success, that can’t be such a bad thing.