Pro Kabaddi League 2018: 'Need to take it with a cool mind' - Tamil Thalaivas captain Ajay Thakur ahead of new season
Season five of the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL) was a hugely remarkable one for Ajay Thakur on a personal level. Ajay finished third in raid points behind only Pardeep Narwal and Rohit Kumar and just six points fewer than Rohit in second. He is third overall as well in the history of PKL as far as raid points are concerned, trailing only Rahul Chaudhari and Pardeep Narwal.
Beyond the volume of points, Ajay was responsible for producing some of the most scintillating moments of the season as he starred in a few nail-biters where his last-minute heroics took his team home. Twice, in back-to-back games even, Ajay won the game for the Thalaivas with a multi-point raid off the last raid of the match to give his side the win by a single point.
Despite those impressive numbers and valiant efforts in desperate situations, the season proved bittersweet for him as the new Tamil Thalaivas team that he captained struggled to put wins together and lost many a close encounter. The Thalaivas won just six games in their debut season last time around.
Season six will see Ajay lead the Thalaivas once again. This time, however, he's got reinforcements, something which he's very happy about as he tells Sportskeeda in an exclusive chat.
'Maturity level has gone up'
"Last season we had a lot of youngsters in our team. This time we have a good combination of experienced players along with young players. I feel the maturity level in the team has gone up," Ajay says referencing the shake-up of the Thalaivas squad in the off-season.
Prominent among the names that have come through the doors of the Thalaivas are Manjeet Chhillar, Jasvir Singh and Sukesh Hegde, all veteran players with experience of leading teams. That's a major reason Ajay feels the Thalaivas will be able to avoid some of the mistakes from last season.
"There were many times last season where if I was not on the mat, the team rushed their decisions or were not able to manage certain situations. This season even if I'm off court, I don't think that will be an issue."
Handling the pressure is never easy especially under the bright lights and loud, indoor setting of the PKL. Players can find it tough to keep their wits about them. Ajay says when it comes to handling pressure the key is to plan ahead.
"Pressure is obviously going to be there. We need to take it with a cool mind. We need to look at what our team is going to benefit from, we will obviously be planning all these things out before matches," says the Thalaivas skipper.
'Decision making very important'
As mentioned earlier Ajay made it a habit of being a last-minute specialist when it came to close games, but the prolific raider laughs about it saying that he actually prefers to not leave it late: "My personal belief is that we shouldn't leave it to the end to win matches. I also believe that even if it's the last minute, whatever the point difference anything can happen."
He adds, "Not just in a game, but also in life. The decision-making is very important. It's important to remain patient, then you can get three, maybe even four points from the raid. Just have to not give up easily."
In season five, the Thalaivas' raiding responsibilities lay with Ajay and Prapanjan. The latter is now with the Gujarat Fortunegiants, but with the arrivals of Jasvir, Sukesh, Surjeet and a few other young, raw raiders, Ajay has backup.
When asked if giving all of them playing time will be an issue, Ajay gives an assuring smile to assuage concerns. "Yes, they will definitely get chances because there's no such thing that only Ajay Thakur is going to score points. A player can fail, I will not score points all the time," he says.
"There might be some defences which won't give me even a single point. There might be another team against whom I might be more comfortable. So we are going to judge the team that is in front of us and use our raiders accordingly. We will look at if a team has a particularly strong side in their defence. So if a team has a strong right-side defence then I will probably sit back and send in a left-sided raider."
'Good time to play home leg'
The new PKL season begins on Sunday in Chennai meaning the Thalaivas will be playing their home leg at the very beginning as compared to last time where it came towards the end. Ajay feels this is a huge positive for his side: "This is a big plus point for us because as the league progresses there are always small, minor injuries that keep happening to players. So now at the start of the season, we are all fit, there are no injuries, so it's a very good time to play your home leg of matches in the very beginning."
Up first for the Thalaivas are the three-time defending champions, the Patna Pirates led by Pardeep Narwal. The Thalaivas, however, ran them close last season a few times before finally beating them in their third meeting.
"Last season we played them three times. The first two matches were neck-and-neck and we lost by a very small margin in the end. And in the third we ended up beating them," says Ajay looking ahead to that clash.
"I think by the third match we ended up handling the moments better. So if the team is settled and is able to make good decisions we will be able to win. If we falter, then it becomes difficult."
'It will always keep pricking you'
The PKL might be upon us once again, but a few months ago there was disappointment at the national level for Ajay and Team India. The men's kabaddi team failed to win gold for the first time ever at the Asian Games after being eliminated by Iran in the semis. We ask Ajay if a successful PKL will help towards easing that pain to which the India skipper says that it's not likely.
"They are two very different things. Asian Games, winning a gold medal, that is something of a childhood dream for a player. When we start playing this is one of the first things that's there on our mind. That I should play in a World Cup, play in Asian Games, etc.," Ajay says.
"So when something bad happens in those competitions you can never forget it. It will always keep pricking you at moments throughout your lifetime. It's not possible to completely get rid of it."