When Ajay Thakur first heard about the idea of the Pro Kabaddi League and how much money the players would get for the first time, he found it unbelievable and didn’t understand why someone would want to do that.
“I was sceptical about whether kabaddi could come to such a level and how the organisers will maintain the game, one which has its roots in muddy fields,” he said.
Since then, the sport — and the league — has soared in popularity, and the Tamil Thalaivas player has become a recognisable face, along with many other players.
In an interview, the India captain, who was recently nominated for the Arjuna Award, speaks about the transition to the professional game, how he’s matured and what being conferred the Padma Shri means to him.
How has the introduction of the Pro Kabaddi League impacted the sport?
The pressure wasn’t as high before. Earlier, if a team had the lead, they would play safe. The game can change at any point now. Now you have to a score a point in the third raid (do-or-die raid). There’s more fun in the game now because you cannot go on empty raids. In such situations, only the players or teams that are most fit win the points.
From the first season till now, how would you rate your fitness levels?
My fitness has certainly improved. We have to focus on fitness because you know that you need to win a point off every third raid. You know that the game is going to be fast-paced and you have pressure mounting on you through the 40 minutes of the match. You can’t play safe and you have to try to score points.
When the siren for the third raid goes off or when the beep goes off, your heart is pounding. You’re eager to figure out how to get a point and you’re trying to see who to get a touch off. To prepare for such situations, which you know will occur in every match, you need to work on your fitness beforehand.
How have things changed with regard to your approach to fitness and the game?
I was really fit when I started, but I did not have a knowledge of the sport. I didn’t know how to maintain myself, where to raid from, how to score points... I used to play blindly. I was really young then and all I knew was I had to go in there and tackle the opponent. But now there is more maturity. Now I see how the team is placed, what the team needs, and play according to the situation.
When the PKL was introduced in 2014, what were your initial thoughts? Did you see it becoming such a hit?
When we first spoke about the idea of the PKL and how much money we would get for the first time, I found it fake and didn’t understand why someone would want to do it. I was sceptical about whether kabaddi could come to such a level and how the organisers will maintain the game, one which has its roots in muddy fields. And when I heard about the do-or-die raid for the first time, I felt this is such an injury-prone game and that this concept would lead to more injuries. I initially didn’t think things would work out. But after the first season got over, my opinion changed.
Because it depends on the way you showcase the sport and the way Star Sports showed the game — you won’t believe it but the ladies at home started to point out my shortcomings or the mistakes I was making. When I went home, the ladies told me that I tend to get out in the third or fourth raid and that I should go in in the sixth or seventh raid instead. People have begun to follow kabaddi very closely.
Everybody recognises me now. I’ve learnt one thing in life that if you do something, you don’t do it for yourself, but do it to prove yourself to others. We study hard or work well so that we have a good reputation and to make more money and to be recognised by people. If there is no one to watch you, then you will not do anything. If you tell me that you have to play here but no one will watch you play, then we won’t have that energy in us. If I know that there are people watching, then I feel like I have to prove that I am to someone. Those who say they do it for themselves are liars. It is human nature that we do things to show ourselves in a certain manner to others and to improve our reputation and status.
I remember calling you when your Padma Shri nomination was announced and you spoke about out how nervous you were before the announcement.
I received a call and came to know that I was nominated for the Padma Shri and that the decision would be taken later that night. I was just told that my name was on the list, but I didn’t know for sure if I would get the award. Believe me, I turned off the TV. I was undergoing DSP (deputy superintendent of police) training then and I told my cousin Shakti Singh to watch and tell me if I had won the award. I was lying in my room and was very tense. I didn’t go to his room and waited for his call and hoped there was good news. As soon as he called, I felt something good had happened because he would not have called otherwise. As soon as I answered the call, he laughed a little and I knew that I had won the award.
READ | 'I had no idea,' says Ajay Thakur about Arjuna nomination
He said “Congrats, Thakur sahab” and I was ecstatic. I got multiple calls and I did not know how to react. I just could not express how happy I was. When you get such a prestigious award, it’s a completely different feeling altogether. It takes you in a different direction, and having the title of “Padma Shri” ahead of your name is a special feeling. It is definitely the biggest achievement of my life.
How did your parents and the people in your home town react to the news?
My parents were extremely happy. You won’t believe it but the locals did not know what it was about. They had no idea what this award was. A few people called me to inquire and congratulated me saying we heard you’ve won a very special award. They just knew that something big had happened to me.
The inspector general of the Himachal police, Himanshu Mishra, later also called me up and congratulated me. He said it was a matter of pride for the state and the police department that I train with them and had won the award.
Tell us a little about the experience of working with the police force.
The police job is a very tough one. You have to be available through the day. I wake up early and practise for two hours in the morning and in the evening, too. There’s always adjustments depending on the work. You work for six-seven hours and get to take a break, but you have to remain in the staff quarters. If anything major happens, you have to go back to work.
It’s a job that involves a lot of responsibility and there is no scope for you to say sorry. You cannot apologise and try to save yourself. You need to be very disciplined and it requires a lot of hard work.
When I was assigned for election duty, I realised how tough the job is. We had to cover such a large area and when we were patrolling I asked my colleague how the police work so hard. We always thought the police take things easily, but I then realised how hard they actually work.
You called the Asian Games loss one of the worst moments of your career. How tough was it?
It is the biggest loss of my life and something I can never compensate for. I was the captain of the team and the responsibility to take the team forward was on me. There were a lot of factors in play and I will tell you all about it when I retire from the sport. We didn’t lose just because the players weren't good, there were multiple issues that affected us. It was a black day for us. It was a dream for all of us to represent the country and we felt terrible letting our fans down.
It was the first time India had lost at the Asian Games (in 28 years) and it felt really bad. I suffered sleepless nights and barely ate for a few days. As soon as the Asian Games ended, I joined the Tamil Thalaivas training camp. For close to 20 days, I wasn’t able tor accept the loss and kept thinking about it. All the players were heartbroken. I remember Deepak (Niwas Hooda) had cried a lot and Sandeep Narwal and I cried a lot too. It was our dream to win the title and the loss was really tough. I would say the loss was the saddest moment of my life.