It was the perfect underdog story India loved. Though it’s a little surprising to read the term ‘underdog’ associated with the country in Kabaddi, a sport they’ve dominated for decades, it came down to just that. Or more precisely, it was the story about one man reclaiming his mojo and proving to the world that he is still the best there is. After being on the verge of being discarded permanently earlier this season, one man stormed back, all alone, in the final to virtually single-handedly win India their third successive World Cup title – against an Iranian team that was playing the game of their lives.
Ajay Thakur, the tall 30-year-old Himachal Pradesh raider, was suffering from the “Dhoni syndrome” over the last few years. In the Kabaddi Pro-League, he was often found on the bench for the Puneri Paltan, replaced by the quicker and younger Deepak Hooda. He had had an ordinary raid season by his standards, and he felt no more like the pacey-skilled champion he once was.
Then, the World Cup came. Suddenly, with inspiration from his coach, Thakur, who didn’t start the first game against Korea, which India lost (the wake-up call they needed), began to grow into a new beast by the time the latter stages started. Thakur ended the final with 11 raid points in their tight 38-29, after trailing by six points at the half-way point. He produced one of the memorable lone-hero performances in the second half to give India the momentum and then inspire his defense from their slumber, running circles around a stunned Iranian contingent. India were far from their best in the final, and yet they managed to outplay their great rivals (who have now lost to them in all three World Cup finals). But this time, they had Thakur to thank – who ended with 64 raid points for the tournament, the best over the last 16 days.
Ahmedabad was witness to scenes of jubilation that they’d have preferred, instead of yet another one-sided tournament performance. India were made to work and toil in their first and last game, reminding themselves that other countries were slowly beginning to get a feel for the sport, given its global outreach in the last few years. They may have beaten their Asian rivals Bangladesh, but they will forever remember trailing by five points in the final with 15 minutes to go. Their “underdog” – perhaps India’s finest ever raider – then stood up, and the rest was history. He had predicted that he would do it alone on the eve of the final, but then it was more of a confidence-boosting glory remark. Thakur actually fulfilled his prophecy.
After losing to Korea 32-34 in the first game, India smashed Australia, Bangladesh, Argentina and England before humbling the “fairytale” Thai team, who had reached so far being comprised of resourceful university students. Thakur plundered 11 points here too, and set the stage for a performance that outshadowed his more ‘illustrious’ team players, all of who were having an off day, including captain Anup Kumar.
In the end, Kumar pointed solely to Thakur on TV cameras, knowing how close they had come to being labeled as ‘has-beens’ – perhaps their toughest tournament out of the three so far. And the fans aren’t complaining. They’ve “earned” it this time. Their rivals aren’t soft anymore.