New Delhi: In 2002, when he was 16 years old, Ajay Thakur watched the live telecast of a game of kabaddi being played at the Asian Games in Busan, South Korea. Sitting at home in Dabhota village of Solan district in Himachal Pradesh, he decided he too wanted play the game at an international level.

It’s a sport he knows well. Thakur was 10 years old when he played his first kabaddi match in a neighbouring village. “I weighed 32kg when I first participated in a single weight category," said Thakur, now 31 and a top kabaddi player for India.

“For me, kabaddi is a part of my life," he said. “I really love this sport. I have played it very seriously; I am totally dedicated to kabaddi." Thakur said the sport holds a spiritual—almost God-like—place in his life and wants to be associated with the game even after he’s stopped playing it.

Kabaddi made its first appearance as an exhibition sport in 1982 and has become an Asian Games event since the 1990 games in Beijing. India dominates the event, winning all the gold medals in both the men’s and women’s categories.

Thakur was the number one raider of the 2016 Kabaddi World Cup, (the Kabaddi World Cup of 2016 hosted by India took place after a gap of nine years, the last was held in 2007), with the highest raid points. He won the title of highest overall points scorer with 68 points, saving his best performance for the final against Iran where he scored a match-winning 12 raid points. 

Last year was also a breakout year for kabaddi—a decision by Star India, Pro Kabaddi League’s (PKL’s) principal owner, to have two seasons in 2016, was a hit with viewers. PKL is a professional kabaddi league in India, based on the format of the Indian Premier League T20 cricket tournament. The league was founded in 2014 with the inaugural edition of the tournament being played between eight franchises representing eight Indian cities.On the back of a two-season PKL and India hosting the World Cup in Ahmedabad, on-ground sponsorship for the sport grew a game-changing 154%, enabling kabaddi to race past football as the No. 2 game in India after cricket in terms of sponsorship revenue. Kabaddi generated Rs122 crore in on-ground sponsorships, up from Rs48 crore in 2015 as per a sports report by media buying agency GroupM.

The Pro Kabaddi League was founded in 2014 with the inaugural edition of the tournament being played between eight franchises representing eight Indian cities

The Kabaddi World Cup generated approximately Rs20 crore in sponsorship money, with Amazon, Patanjali, Syska and Volini as associate sponsors, and Thums Up, Skill India and Indo Nissin Foods joining as official partners. As for PKL, the league generated Rs100 crore, split between its two seasons with 15 central sponsors on board, six of whom stayed invested across both seasons.

Thakur is now training in Shimla for the forthcoming fifth season of PKL, which starts on Friday. His quintessential moves on the field are hand touch and frog jump. He has played all four seasons of PKL since its inception in 2014, representing Bengaluru Bulls in the first two and Puneri Paltan for the last two seasons. 

“Earlier when we used to play for a regular tournament, people didn’t really recognize us. After PKL, people know me by my name," Thakur said, and added that PKL has given kabaddi players and the sport pehchaan, or an identity.

He was first selected in the national kabaddi team in 2007 as part of a squad of 14 players. “It was the happiest moment for me. I was 19 years old," he recalled. There was money too—a kabaddi player typically gets Rs40 lakh when he plays in the World Cup and Rs30 lakh for Asian Games. The money is decided and regulated by the government.

When Thakur started playing PKL, he earned Rs12 lakh in season 1, Rs15 lakh in season 2, Rs20 lakh in season 3 and Rs19 lakh in the last season. Thakur is spending money on building a home and bought a Toyota Fortuner in December. If there’s one thing he enjoys spending money on, it’s dogs. He’s a dog lover and has acquired four —Peter, Badal, Jimmy and Stephi—over the last three years, spending Rs4 lakh. In the forthcoming season of PKL, Thakur will earn Rs69 lakh, representing the newly formed Tamil Nadu franchise Tamil Thalaivas, co-owned by Sachin Tendulkar with Kamal Haasan as the brand ambassador.

“Before the start of the first season I remember I was wondering what would the environment be like for kabaddi, how would they air the tournament, those kind of dilemmas were going through my head. But there was happiness also because kabaddi was being given a new platform," he recalled. Thakur was in Bengaluru during the first PKL auction staying with the Indian team’s Asian Games camp where he watched the auction live at a sports hostel. “I was really very happy when I was auctioned," he said.

Thakur said a league like PKL creates ambition and prospects of money for kids from villages. “Ek zariya, ek manzil hai bachchon ke liye. (It’s a destination for upcoming players). They can see a goal in their lives, that in the future they want to go and play for PKL. Earlier, there was nothing like this. Some kids would wonder if putting in the hard work would be worth it. After all, you should see light at the end of the tunnel. It’s their new dream now," he said.

“Leagues happen every year, Asian Games and the World Cup don’t, so that’s why it’s become a target for all players. It’s a big helping hand financially for players coming from small villages and towns. It has made kabaddi a viable professional career choice," he added.

But Thakur maintains that playing for the national team has its own special place for everyone. Nothing compares with that pride. “There, money holds no significance," which is why he still enjoys playing kabaddi for the country the most.

Kabaddi made its first appearance as an exhibition sport in 1982 and has become an Asian Games event since the 1990 games in Beijing.

Thakur, a graduate in arts, comes from a sporting lineage—his father Chhotu Ram was a well-known wrestler and his first cousin Rakesh Kumar is also an international kabaddi player. 

Kumar was the first breakout international kabaddi player from Himachal Pradesh. He was the vice-captain of the Indian squad that won the gold medal at the 2007 World Cup at Panvel, in Raigad district of Maharashtra. In 2011, in recognition of his achievements in the sport, he was awarded the Arjuna Award. It was Kumar who taught kabaddi to kids, including Thakur, in the village. 

Thakur played local kabaddi tournaments in close to 500 villages in his younger days. “Kumar used to mentor us and take us for all nearby local tournaments. My father wanted me to play kabaddi and represent India at the international level. The craze for sports runs in the family," recalled Thakur.

Thakur was born and brought up in Dabhota village of Himachal Pradesh. Most people in his village are either employed in the army or they join the police force, besides doing farming.

While playing in PKL, Thakur enjoys interacting with fellow players, and likes travelling to different states. “You get to interact with fans from all over India. Spectator interest is similar to national level hockey tournaments," he said.

Thakur says league culture in India should grow. “We get messages asking when will the next season start; people are really enjoying the game. The biggest thing is that it’s an Indian game, linked to the village—it should really grow," said Thakur.

This is the last of a three-part series.

New sports leagues such as the Indian Premier League (cricket), the Indian Super League (football), and the Pro Kabaddi League (kabaddi) have changed the lives of scores of young people across the country. In a three-part series, Mint profiles some of these young people.

Part 1 : Thangarasu Natarajan’s rocky road to the IPL

Part 2 : Jackichand Singh’s journey: From Manipur village to Mumbai City FC