Not too long ago, a teenager from Dabhota village of Nalagarh district of Himachal Pradesh was running home in joy after he had won a ‘donga’ (bowl) at a kabaddi tournament. His mom was fasting that day for the well-being of her son and the only thing he had in mind was to eat in that bowl that day. Two years ago, the same boy won another tournament at Ahmedabad by scoring 12 raid points in the final. But, this time the prize was not a utensil, but the Kabaddi World Cup Trophy for the country.
Ajay Thakur, captain of the Indian Kabaddi team and Tamil Thalaivas in the Pro Kabaddi League, recalled his childhood days in a conversation with Financial Express Online. Thakur represents a generation of Kabaddi players that kept playing the sport selflessly despite the lack of required infrastructure and investment in the country.
Unlike the current generation, Thakur and his contemporaries didn’t have the luxury of participating in a sought-after tournament like Pro Kabaddi League which not just provides them with a platform to showcase their talent but also extends financial stability.
For Thakur, the only motivation was to represent India at the Asian Games. “When we were young, the winning prize in tournaments used to be utensils like bowls and glasses. But, our mindset was different. We never thought there is anything beyond this. Country ke liye khelna, Asian games khelna…bas yehi sapna tha. League toh thi nahi tab (Our only dream was to represent the country. There were no leagues back then),” he said.
The 32-year-old raider recalled one of the most memorable days of his life when he had won a ‘donga’ for being the best raider on Ahoi Ashtami – a one-day festival celebrated in North India during which mothers fast for the well-being of their sons.
“We have a festival in our village in which mothers fast for the well-being of their kids. It is celebrated after Karva Chauth. My mom was fasting for me and I was playing a tournament on the same day,” a joyous Thakur recalled.
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“I won a donga for being the best raider. I was so happy that I ran 5km all the way home thinking that I will only eat in this utensil today. My mom was also very happy. Bas inhi cheezon mein maza ata tha us samay (All these small things used to bring us a lot of joy back then),” the Indian skipper said, even as he extended us an invitation to his house to see all the utensils he won as a child.
Even though he has been playing kabaddi for more than 15 years now, Thakur’s big moment arrived in 2016 Kabaddi World Cup final when he single-handedly lifted the Indian side which was trailing 13-18 to Iran in the final. Thakur scored 12 points in that match and finished as the leading scorer of the tournament with 68 points to his name.
Surpassing his own best every day, the unstoppable @thakurkabaddi! #IdhuNammaAatam pic.twitter.com/OtoqzB6xVN
— Tamil Thalaivas (@tamilthalaivas) November 5, 2018
Yet, Kabaddi wasn’t the first sport the Tamil Thalaivas captain tried his hands at.
His father Chottu Ram was a state-level wrestler and this was the first sport he was inclined towards. He tried his hands at wrestling for about two years and competed till the 57 kg category. But, Thakur was destined to play Kabaddi and soon the fever took over him.
“I come from a humble background. My father always had one dream that someone from the family should represent the country. The sport didn’t matter to him. Kabaddi at that time was very popular in our village. So, I started playing it…aur fir dheere dheere aa gaye isi sport mein,” he said.
Asked whether his father was against his decision to play Kabaddi, Thakur said, “My father, in fact, used to ask me to leave wrestling and focus on Kabaddi. I was 13 or 14 when I started playing Kabaddi.”
Thakur continues to watch wrestling even now but his favourite sport apart from Kabaddi, is Circle Kabaddi. “I watch a lot of Circle Kabaddi on mobile. These players inspire me,” he said. Popularly known as Punjab Circle Style of kabaddi, this format is governed by the Amateur Circle Kabaddi Federation of India.
The playing field in this format is a circle with a radius of 22 metres. It is divided into two halves by a mid-line. Unlike the standard Kabaddi, there are no lobbies or bonus lines in circle style kabaddi. Eight players from each side start the match while 5 players remain on the bench as rolling substitutions.
Asked which athletes have inspired him, Thakur had only one name – Pankaj Shirsat Ji. The Kabaddi-player-turned-cop had led India to a title in the 2006 Kabaddi World Cup. He is currently employed with the Mumbai Police.
“Among Kabaddi players, I have always looked up to Pankaj Shirsat Ji. He is the only man I used to look at and say this is how I want to be. He always used to motivate me. I haven’t followed a sportsperson from any other sport in my life,” Thakur said.
Thakur, who is employed with Himachal Police, plans to keep himself busy in police duty. “I will be busy after retirement as I am in the Himachal police. Every player will have to do something – job or business. Once you retire, you will have to do something. Ghar pe free baith ke kya karenge,” he added.
Having faced the hardships early in his career, Thakur understands the importance of money and right investments for a player. He believes that sportspersons other than cricketers should also have their own businesses, but without losing focus on their game.
“Most of the kabaddi players have their own business. Even I have a gas agency,” he said.