"Having a number of leaders in the Indian team is a big plus for the Indian team," says Ajay Thakur
In a country that houses over 1 billion people, it is not surprising if at least more than a quarter of them, until they reach a certain age aspire to be a cricketer and wake up early in the morning to pick up a bat and run to the grounds and play with their friends.
In almost every nook and corner of the village or an urban city, youngsters can be spotted trying to mimic some of Virat Kohli's glances or Sachin Tendulkar's magnificent straight drives.
However, in recent times, another sport has taken India by storm and that is none other than one of the country's most ancient games, Kabaddi.
A game which was slowly fading into its own shadows has found a revival in the form of the Pro Kabaddi League, which has unearthed some of the best Kabaddi talents around the world and has also taken the game to different countries, a testament to the increasing popularity of the game.
Such has been the influence of the game that one of India's best raiders, Rishank Devadiga sheepishly spoke about how he is greeted at the airport on being recognized as a player, something that he had never dreamt of in his wildest dreams.
Soon, he will be playing under a man who has earned a name as one of the best raiders in the world, Ajay Thakur in the upcoming 2018 Kabaddi Masters in Dubai.
In light of the upcoming tournament, Ajay Thakur speaks about his life as a Kabaddi player, the challenges of captaining a team full of superstars and more in an exclusive interview with Sportskeeda. Here is the full interview.
There are big players in your team, Monu Goyat emerged as the costliest player and is debuting in the Kabaddi Masters. How will you handle such big players as a captain?
Ajay: There is nothing like a big or small player. We are all representing a nation and we bring in players based on a certain strategy. Obviously, we read the opponent's strengths and weaknesses based on which we decide which player would be suitable to play in the team. We never pre-plan our strategies, it is all based on the match situation.
How easy is it to captain the Indian setup, which consists of players who are captains of various franchises in the Pro Kabaddi League?
Ajay: One thing everyone needs to understand is that we cannot have any ego clashes in the team. We have big players such as Surender Nada, Pardeep Narwal, Manjeet Chhillar etc. who are all captains of various franchises. We all represent the country and our focus will remain on how we can contribute to the country's victory. If the time comes that even me as a captain should make way for a better player for a certain situation, I will happily do so.
Is it an advantage for you or for the Indian team that most of the players in the Indian team have leadership qualities?
Ajay: Yes of course and this is also one of the biggest plus points in the Indian team. Almost all of them have leadership qualities and hence they are also very mature. If a player is asked to sit out, they will happily opt out to play to the strengths of the team and hence there is no pressure on me to captain the side.
This is your second tournament as Indian captain. How much of pressure is on you, that you will be replacing one of India's greatest captains, Anup Kumar?
Ajay: I don't feel any pressure to be honest because everyone on the team understands the importance of the situation. Everyone has some particular skill set and so it is important to try and field every player once in the tournament to build the best team. The captain of the team keeps shuffling and it is always a chain, and to prove the worth of the player, you need to give them opportunities.
Can you tell us a bit about Anup Kumar's absence from the team? Has he retired from playing for the national team?
Ajay: You see, Kabaddi is a game that is based completely on fitness. It depends on how long you can represent your country and if you are unfit to play, you will make way for the youngsters in the team. Personally, even if I feel I am unfit, I will make way for better players and take a backstep. Age is always a factor and with all these factors, some big players might undoubtedly miss out. The nature of Kabaddi is such that a name remains popular for only one particular season until another player makes a bigger impact and the spotlight falls on them.
In the Pro Kabaddi League, how do you go about picking the 'New Young Players' who will represent your squad?
Ajay: In my opinion, this is a wonderful move for the future of Indian Kabaddi. As we seniors retire, the New Young Players will be prepared to take up the national colors and this move will also double up as a platform for them to hone their skills. Earlier there was no platform but with the new addition, they will have a chance to play with big names and also earn a lot of money to make a career out of Kabaddi.
The transition for some of the 'New Young Players' from playing on the mud to playing on the mat has been an arduous task. Did you also feel the same way when you first stepped on a mat?
Ajay: Yes, in the starting it was tough. However, with a lot of practice, it becomes a habit and becomes easier over time. On the mat, twisting is one main issue but apart from that, there are no problems of getting hurt, something that used to happen quite often due to the rough and tough nature of the mud we used to play on.
Can you tell us how Kabaddi has changed or influenced your lifestyle?
Ajay: You see, Kabaddi is now my life. All that I am today, it is all because of Kabaddi. My role as a Deputy Superintendent of Police in Himachal Pradesh is all due to the game. My life has completely changed. In my younger days, my nickname was 'Sonu' and now, everyone calls me Ajay Thakur or recognizes me by that name out of respect. It has undoubtedly given me a lot of popularity, they want to meet me and whenever I go out into the public, I get a lot of attention and that feels very good.
Your Top 7 team from the Pro Kabaddi League?
A. I am happy with my team at the Tamil Thalaivas. It was a choice made by me with the help of my coach so I would stick to that team as my top team.
We, from Sportskeeda, would like to wish Ajay Thakur the best of luck for his stint as captain ahead of the 2018 Kabaddi Masters!