2020 THE LOST YEAR: Away from the bio-bubbles put in place by those with deep pockets, sport had its lockdown tales of angst, uncertainty and apprehension. THE INDIAN EXPRESS talks to those who missed out on their break-out year or had to delay their retirement.
At this stage in his career, Ajay Thakur is well used to fans rushing to him with requests for autographs and selfies. The hero of the 2016 kabaddi World Cup final has mentioned many times how he revels in the adulation.
Those fans recognise him even today. Despite the mask (a clear indication of the rough times we live in) and his police uniform, they rush to him. That’s when the Deputy Superintendent of Police in Himachal Pradesh finds himself taking a cautionary step back to keep safe distance. A social distance.
The last time he trained for a kabaddi match, or for the sport in general, was back in February, when he competed in the state championship where he pocketed the Best All-Rounder Award. Since then, his uniform has changed from the usual sports kit he dons when raiding on the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL) mat to the Himachal Pradesh Police Service attire.
Since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, the 34-year-old Nalagarh native has been based in Bilaspur, Himachal Pradesh, patrolling the streets and striving to fight the coronavirus. And kabaddi has often been the last thing on his mind.
“This (the season getting wiped out due to the pandemic) was a massive loss for us players, especially for the older players like me who maybe have less than five years left to play,” he says. “The biggest thing was that we couldn’t play kabaddi at all. But now there is always a fear that ‘yaar, mujhe bhi coronavirus toh nahi hua (Am I also infected with the coronavirus)?”
On the kabaddi mat, Thakur’s task as a raider is to sneak through defences and get home safely. Since March though, his role in the police has been to stop people from leaving their homes unnecessarily.
“The most difficult bit was to get migrant workers who were heading back to their homes to enter quarantine. I’d be up early in the morning and return home only after 11 at night, sometimes two in the morning. There were people passing by at any time of the day. People would be trying to sneak out in the middle of the night, so it actually became a 24-hour job for us.”
In a year that would have seen the 34-year-old former India captain, Arjuna Awardee, Asian Games gold (2014) and bronze (2018) medallist and Padma Shri compete in the eighth season of the PKL, Thakur has spent most of his time in his police job. And the exhaustion he suffered during the hot summer months on the streets of Bilaspur is something he’s yet to get over.
“It was a very difficult period for me in the force, and I’m still physically recovering from it,” he says.
Sports have started to resume across the world. There have been a few Grand Slams in tennis, the NBA is on, the Indian Premier League (IPL) was held successfully, and the Indian cricket team is currently on tour in Australia. But as kabaddi is a contact sport, it hasn’t been able to restart.
“The risk of (PKL) becoming a super-spreader was much higher than, say cricket,” says Sandip Tarkas, CEO of 2019 champions Bengal Warriors. “Even if one player has this virus, chances are all his teammates will pick it up and so will the opposition. Of course, this year we couldn’t have the Olympics or the T20 World Cup in cricket. Those events, however, have been postponed. PKL has cleanly lost a year.”
Because of it, there is a chance that some of the more senior players in the league have lost a significant amount of time before they call it quits. Thakur finds himself in that position.
“When I won the Arjuna Award last year, I was confident I’d play at least another three years,” he says. “I still want to play at least three years, but it’s going to be much more difficult to stay fit. It’s not just because of the age though.
“Jab main 18 ka tha, family ki koi zimmedari mere pe nahi thi. Abhi sab zimmedari mujh pe hai (When I was 18, I didn’t have any family responsibilities on me. Now everything is one me). It’s difficult to get away from that. Age doesn’t get you down, responsibilities do.”
Thakur hasn’t played or trained in the sport since February. His daily schedule, however, does include a session of physical training to keep the body fit, but not enough to get him to the level he needs to be the dominant player he has been over the years. Right now, his responsibilities in the police take greater precedence over the sport that has seen him achieve everything there is on offer – except winning a PKL title. And 2020 has made it all the more difficult for him.
“Body fit rakhne waala fitness kar raha hoon main. Lekin player banne waali fitness nahi kar paya (I’m keeping the body fit, but not enough to play),” he says. “This year has been a complete waste. Bahut zyada kathin raha hai (It’s been very tough).”