"I will beat Iran single-handedly" — India's Manjeet Chhillar recalls teammate Ajay Thakur saying on the morning of the Kabaddi World Cup final. A few hours later, Thakur's words proved prophetic, as the 30-year-old raider went out on the court and did exactly that.
However, while we can applaud the Himachal Pradesh raider for his performance, it does make sense to recall the last few months of his career. He was brought in by the Puneri Paltan during the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL), but had to settle for a place on the bench. The in-form Deepak Hooda had taken his place and the Asian Games gold medalist couldn't force his way back.
Injuries also played their part, but Thakur's loss of form was down to him losing his self-belief. There's a swagger about him when he goes out to raid today; those who saw him in the World Cup would vouch for it. But there was no swagger in the PKL; defenders found it easy to trap Thakur. Having scored 122 and 79 raid points in the first two seasons, Thakur managed only 52 and 63 in the next two. And though it was a decent enough tally, it wasn't enough by his own yardstick.
Despite poor form, however, his legacy was too strong for coach Balwan Singh to ignore him, and Thakur was named in the probables for the World Cup. That was his chance to make a revival in his career. It was that chance, that hope of rolling back the old days that got him going.
"Kabaddi is a difficult game. It's very physical, and causes frequent injuries. But when I came for the (India) camp, both the coaches helped me prepare really well. The training helped me get back my touch and I was fortunate to be a part of the final team," Ajay said after the win against Iran in the final.
"He is a confidence player and the more you motivate him, the better he performs. I have played with him in every season of the PKL and I remember whenever our team needed points, he would go and get them. In the final he did the same, this time for India," Manjeet told reporters after the game.
Ajay fondly remembers the first day of the World Cup, when coach Balwan spoke to him. "The coach came to my room and told me that I was the best, there was no one like me and I can beat any defence in the world. The coach's motivation helped me a lot," the 30-year-old revealed.
He wasn't included in the starting line-up for the first game against Korea, but was called upon in a do-or-die raid to prevent India getting all out. He was subbed in just before he went to raid, and he won India a crucial point. In that one point, he showed glimpses of his old self, and despite that being his only successful raid in the game, it was enough to fuel his belief further.
By the time the final came, Thakur already had scored 53 raid points and was on the cusp of becoming the best raider of the tournament. But Iran had other ideas. He and his partner in crime Pardeep Narwal had been given no inch by the Iran defence, and the visitors had a five-point lead with fifteen minutes of the game left.
Mighty India were being thwarted in their own backyard, silence in the stadium had moved on to anxiety. Something had to give and the signs weren't great for the home side, as Iran were in no mood to relent. Inspiration was required from somewhere, a spark was needed; India craved for one champion to put his hand up.
Driven by his own desire for heroism, and bound by his bold claims, Ajay Thakur responded. Leaving his foot as a bait, he triggered an Iranian assault. It was a dangerous thing to do, but not for Ajay Thakur. The tall raider battled his way through the power-packed Iranian challenge and stuck a foot across the half line, and brought India two crucial points. By doing so, he not only trimmed Iran's lead, he also caused a shift in momentum. Iran lost numbers on court, the crowd got on its back, and Ajay Thakur had his mojo again.
"We knew we could get back into the game. In kabaddi, a five-point lead is nothing and with Ajay in such a good form, we believed that we could win the game," captain Anup Kumar said in the post-match press conference.
The team had put its faith in the raider from Himachal Pradesh, and he didn't disappoint. He had tasted blood and was hungry for more. The Iranians were slightly wary of him, and Thakur used that to his advantage. He went on the attack and was looking to score in every raid. Much to India's good fortune, he was able to do exactly that.
Ending the evening with 11 raid points, Thakur had rescued his side from a tight situation and put India on the pinnacle of world kabaddi once again. The match-winner was back. Ajay Thakur was reborn.
"The game changed a lot and I feel the Thakur turned it single-handedly and we won the match because of him," Kumar said. As the star athlete tried to deflect away from the gathering and give credit to the team, Kumar, sitting in front of him, shook his head, rejected his claims and pointed a finger straight at the 30-year-old, showing the gathered press who the real hero was.
The greatest joy for the nation was obviously lifting the World Cup, but if anything came close to that feeling, it was seeing the rebirth of one of India's greatest ever kabaddi players.
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Updated Date: Oct 24, 2016 17:21:54 IST