It was a frightening sight. A group of six power-packed wrestlers – disguised as kabaddi players – standing in front of you. Eyes fixed, they measured each move you made and greeted even the tiniest glimpse of your courage with a blood-curdling snarl. Behind them, on a glowing digital white scoreboard you saw the score reading India 14 – Iran 19, with only 15 minutes left of play. More pressure.
There was no shortage of a smack on the thigh to challenge you and remind you of your responsibility: touch one of the menacing beasts and head back to your own half of the court, somehow.
Ajay Thakur stepped into such a setting. He roved around the left side of the court, looking for an opening, a glimmer of a defender out of position.
Anything would do. So he stuck his left foot on the baulk line, and noticed movement on his right. Fazel Atrachali, Iran’s left corner defender charged at him, followed by the captain Meraj Sheykh. The 30-year-old fled for his own half but was caught by Iran’s most feared duo. Any other raider might have decided to give up there and then, and silently march back to his bench. But Thakur is 6-foot-1 and has no shortage of strength of his own.
He pivoted on his right heel, and kicked at the ground with his left, launching himself to the mid-line. All of a sudden, Fazel and Meraj were being told to walk back to their bench. It was only two points that Thakur had won, but it marked a turn of events in the World Cup final that India would eventually win 39-28.
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A whole 25 minutes had passed on and India were still trailing the Iranians. It was the fifth time the two met in a final of a major event – including the 2010 and 2014 Asian Games and 2004 and 2007 World Cups. On each occasion, India emerged victorious. But for most of the first half, it seemed that the 4-0 run would soon be breached.
Meraj and Fazel themselves had wreaked havoc on the Indian lineup. Meraj, with his raids had been bothering both Manjeet Chillar and Surjeet, both of whom entered the match in stellar form. Fazel meanwhile was playing a quieter role for the statisticians, in that he wasn’t initiating tackles. But he was covering up with bone-crunching blocks that silenced Indian raiders. Pardeep Narwal in particular was a victim of the Iran defence, as the budding teenager was effectively shut out for the entire match.
But Thakur, in his raid eliminated the very heart of Iran. His touch points got Fazel and Meraj out, thus leaving the pack of Iranians clueless without their two leaders. In the next five minutes, India would score 10 points, and Iran only one. The momentum had shifted.
And Thakur would make sure of it. He started the match second on the leaderboard for most number of raid points. He added 12 more meaningful points to that tally. As such, the raider not only saved India the blushes for this one match, he managed to rescue the decades of dominance the country has continued to enjoy in the sport since it made its introduction in the Asian Games in 1990.
At the same time, all the pressure had lifted from Thakur’s shoulders. In the past two years, the towering raider has been suffering from recurring knee injuries and was often forced to miss matches in the Pro Kabaddi League, where he plays for the Puneri Paltan, and the Bengaluru Bulls before. And while he was reeling under the pressure of making a comeback on the mat, his father fell victim to an accident at home last year.
At his home in Nalagarh, in the Solan district of Himachal Pradesh, a gas cylinder explosion caught Thakur’s father, who just about made it alive. The senior Thakur recovered though, and resumed his zest to see his son in India colours again.
Thakur admits he was under pressure before the tournament, yet credits that his coaches had worked hard in keeping him mentally focused. “They had one message for me all the time. They told me I am the best. I am the best,” he said after the game. India’s head coach Balwan Singh went further: “Ajay proved he’s the best raider in the world.”
At the end of the game, India captain Anup Kumar kept it simple.
“Ajay won us the final.”