As the curtain comes down on the Tamil Thalaivas' first season in the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL), captain Ajay Thakur is sitting by the sidelines of the court, contemplating everything the year has had to offer. He carries a cheerful disposition, despite knowing that his team, rooted at the bottom of the table, will not reach the semi-finals.
Thakur is thankful, though, because the past year has changed everything for him. This season, individually, has been a success - Thakur is the second-highest scorer with 194 points in 20 matches.
"It has been a very good year for me. I have learnt a lot, both as a player and as captain. My team is very disciplined. We aren't feeling the pressure of results, we are just here to perform. It feels good that these players have come, spoken to me and listened to me. This experience has only been positive," he says.
Often seen as a support player in previous editions of the PKL, a rather underrated Thakur entered the Kabaddi World Cup last year as a fringe member of the Indian team, who were the favourites. While the general audience had their sights on captain Anup Kumar, Rahul Chaudhari and Pardeep Narwal - the bigger stars of the PKL - to take India to victory, it was Ajay's durability under pressure that led India to a crucial win against a tricky Iran in the final. "Mere dimaag me yeh tha ki aaj jo ho, kitni bhi injury aa jaaye, bas jeetna hai (I had one thing in mind: no matter what happens today or how many injuries I get, we just have to win this)," he says.
Thakur became an overnight sensation. He was eventually dubbed the hero of the World Cup after he won the 'Best Raider' award for scoring 54 raid points in the tournament. Not only did his performance increase his fan following, it also led the Thalaivas - one of the four new teams at this year's PKL - to pick him as their captain. Compared to his auction price of Rs. 12 lakh in Season 1 and Rs. 19 lakh in Season 4, he got a bid of Rs. 69 lakh this season, a reflection of the impact his World Cup performance had. "It changed a lot of things for me. It was almost like a turning point in my life. Financially bhi bahut support milne laga hai (I've got a lot of financial support too). Moreover, people started recognising me, calling out my name, which never used to happen before," he says.
Thakur, a part of the Asian Indoor Games-winning team in 2007 and the Asian Games-winning side in 2014, saw the transition first-hand. "2007 was the year I first got selected for the national team. It was the happiest moment for me. Back then, no one used to recognise us. We used to play internationally even then, but there was barely any acknowledgment. From then to now, there has been a significant change."
"Asking me to define kabaddi is like asking me to define life. I'm nothing without it."
So what led to this change? "In one word, the PKL," he says. "People have started taking interest in the game and have started following the game. The league has turned the game into a career option for many who didn't consider it before. Now if I'm around somewhere, I can hear people say 'Dekho, Ajay Thakur aa gaya (See, Ajay Thakur is here)'. It feels good."
Popular for his hand touches and the 'frog' move, a technique where a raider jumps his way to the mid-line while bending his knees as if emulating a frog, Thakur's favourite move on the mat is an unusual one. "I like the celebrations after a successful raid the most. As much as I enjoy the hand touches, I'll call my favourite movement as the one where I raise my hand, looking at my team to celebrate an important raid."
Born and brought up in Dabhota village in Himachal Pradesh, Thakur had an interest in the game since his childhood. "People play a lot of kabaddi in Himachal. My cousin (Rakesh Kumar) used to play internationally too. We don't have too many playing grounds since it's a hilly area, but there's a lot of interest among players," he says. No wonder he played his first match at the age of 10 in a 32 kg kabaddi event in his village.
Asked to define what kabaddi is for him personally, Thakur starts laughing. "It's like asking me to define life. I'm nothing without my kabaddi. If you take it away from me, I'm zero."
The 31-year-old currently works as a Deputy Superintendent of Police in Himachal Pradesh, but his focus is entirely on the game. "Sabne bahut pyaar diya hai mujhe (Everyone has given me a lot of love). The state government completely supports me and my love for kabaddi. They have always encouraged me to do better."
Talking about the future of his game, he simply says, "Madam, agar 2-3 saal mein hum itna aage jaa sakte hai, toh sochiye agle 10 saal mein kya hoga? (If we can progress so much in just 2-3 years, then think what could happen in the next 10 years?)".