Tamil Thalaivas' performance in the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL), since their inception in 2017, has been below par, with the Chennai-based outfit facing the ignominy of finishing last in successive seasons. The fact that the team is led by the experienced Ajay Thakur makes the unimpressive results a lot harder to rationalise, but lack of attacking raiders was among the primary reasons for their flop show over the past two seasons.
Stung by the results, the Thalaivas went for a massive overhaul ahead of the upcoming edition which begins in Hyderabad on Saturday (20 July), and the focus clearly has been to take the raiding burden off Thakur. Thakur, in fact, is among the only three men " Manjeet Chhillar and Victor Onyango Obiero being the other two " to be retained by the franchise for this edition.
To that effect, the inclusion of erstwhile captain of Telugu Titans, Rahul Chaudhari, could mark a fresh start for Thalaivas as Chaudhari, known for his explosive raids, can form a lethal raiding partnership with the vastly-experienced Thakur.
Speaking to Firstpost, Thakur expressed his confidence of teaming up with his India teammate for the seventh edition of PKL. "Rahul and I have been playing together for a while. We have spent a lot of time playing in one team, and we have always had excellent tuning," the 33-year-old said.
"We had played together for Air India and a number of Nationals, and we are now coming together in PKL, which is a good sign. Our combination has always been top-notch, and I am looking forward to excelling with him again," he added.
Thakur's optimism is not unreasonable. Still only 26, Chaudhari is a PKL legend of sorts, and a glance at his statistics is enough to explain why Thalaivas shelled out Rs 94 lakh for him. Of the six previous editions of the league, the former Titans star holds the unique record of finishing among the top five raiders in five seasons.
Besides, he is league's all-time leading point scorer (876), has second-most raid points in league's history (825), and also boasts of the second-highest of Super Raids (24) and Super 10s (36).
Thakur, meanwhile, is not getting ahead of himself and is realistic in his expectations. "Our first aim is to get into the Playoffs, and then take it from there. I am confident of a good show because we have a really good team this season, and all of us very excited to compete."
Aside from improving Thalaivas' dismal record, Thakur, who also leads the national team, has his sights set on the new guns emerging from the league and wants the upcoming youngsters to carry the legacy of Indian kabaddi forward.
"I want India's growth story to continue in Pro Kabaddi," is his only expectation from the league. "I would like to see more and more youngsters to make their mark, the way Pawan Kumar Sehrawat did last season for Bengaluru Bulls. We (India) already have a number of stars in the current team, but I want our back-up to be equally good and strong.
"Seniors will eventually phase out, but I want the next generation to be equally good, and I think the trend is there " Pardeep Narwal came, Rahul Chaudhari came, Pawan came last season. So I want at least two new faces to emerge this season to take Indian kabaddi forward," he said.
Among the senior-most statesmen of the team, Thakur is still in prime shape with no signs of slowing down, and he credits his fat-free diet to keep him ready for the demands of the game.
"We (kabaddi players) have to take a lot of care of our bodies. Personally, since I am past 30, I have to take extra care of my diet. I avoid fat, and my body fat percentage is quite low. The more fat is in your body, more are the chances of injury. I rely more on fruits and dry fruits for energy. Diet, for me, is a primary way to stay relevant, and then there's work-out too," he signed off.
The seventh edition of PKL will kick off with Telugu Titans playing U Mumba, and Bengaluru Bulls taking on Patna Pirates in Saturday's doubleheader.