Rahul Chaudhari on Ajay Thakur: From idol to teammate

From playing kabaddi in my village to becoming an Air India player with the privilege of air travel — I owe much of this success to Ajay Thakur.

Rahul Chaudhari (right) remembers a game that he was playing for the Sports Authority of India against Air India, for which Ajay Thakur was playing. “He casually asked me what I was up to those days, and I didn’t have much going on then. He then asked me if I’d like to play for Air India,” recalls Chaudhari.   -  Pic courtesy: Pro Kabaddi League

I used to play for the Sports Authority of India before being recognised nationally or in the Pro Kabaddi League. We were a good team and we beat the likes of BPCL (Bharat Petroleum Corp. Ltd), ONGC (Oil and Natural Gas Corp. Ltd), Army — all the top teams in kabaddi at that time. Competitions also gave us an opportunity to meet good players from all these teams. That was how I met Ajay Thakur.

There is something very different about how Ajay approaches his game. He is calm from the word go and is easily the best player in the field now in terms of his temperament. He maintains the same energy level from the start to the end of a match and doesn’t get riled up even if provoked because it’s not his priority when stepping on to the mat. It’s one of the qualities that really made him endearing as a player to idolise.

Ajay was representing Air India and we had a fixture against them. I remember that game going well for me after which he called for and greeted me, making general conversation. He casually asked me what I was up to those days, and I didn’t have much going on then. He then asked me if I’d like to play for Air India. That came out of the blue for me and I just remember saying I’d be grateful if I got an opportunity. The coach had never seen me play and I recall him asking Ajay about why he’s taking a gamble with me. All he did was place faith in me and in the game right after I had a good outing, thereby showing the coach what I can do on the mat. From idolising him as an opponent and junior, I became Ajay’s teammate.

I remember we once travelled together for a tournament and that was my first experience of flying. It was surreal because there I was one day a simple man playing kabaddi in his village and the next an Air India player with the privilege of air travel. Beside me was Ajay Thakur, who I owe much of all this success to. He’s a mentor for me in so many ways and I am glad to know and play with the man, not just for our national sides, but in Pro Kabaddi, too.

As told to Shyam Vasudevan.