How a farmer’s son from a village in Junagadh helped Steve Smith prepare for Ravichandran Ashwin

Mahesh Pithiya watched his first cricket match in a paan shop in Nagichana, a village which is an hour away from Junagadh, a cricketing backwater. It was Sachin Tendulkar’s farewell Test at the Wankhede Stadium back in 2013.

During this ‘public screening’ of the Test match in the village, Pithiya noticed that his bowling action was similar to off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin. The similarity was a coincidence, Pithiya said because before that day he had never seen Ashwin bowl. Back then he was a village-level tennis-ball off-spinner. He stuck to his natural action and nearly a decade later it helped him get a big break — bowling to one of the greatest batsmen of this era, Steve Smith.

The likeness had caught the attention of the touring Australian Test team keen to replicate a Test match in India feel during practice ahead of the four-Test series that starts on February 9. Pithiya, from a farming family, boarded a flight to Bangalore on Wednesday.

Steve Smith was the batsman I bowled to the most over the past two days. The Australian batsmen only realised I am similar to Ashwin when I started bowling to them during practice. Smith was very keen on facing me,” Pithiya says about the visiting team’s practice sessions in Alur. Pithiya, still in awe of the quality of batsmen he bowled to, says he ‘dismissed’ Smith on a few occasions.

Pithiya, 21, made his First-Class debut for Baroda in a Ranji Trophy game against Uttar Pradesh in December. He wasn’t in the limelight or on the radar of the Australian team but a throw-down specialist from Baroda forwarded a video of his bowling to Australia’s assistant coach Andre Borovec. “I was asked if I knew any good spinners and I forward the video of Mahesh. The similarity of his action with Ashwin is there but he is also a very good spinner,” Pritesh Joshi, the throw-down specialist, said.

Pithiya, 21, made his First-Class debut for Baroda in a Ranji Trophy game against Uttar Pradesh in December. (Express photo)

The sudden spotlight, which followed a write-up by Cricbuzz about the ‘Ashwin impersonator’, has given Pithiya his first brush with fame. He says he has given half a dozen interviews, including to the official broadcaster of the four-Test series. Cricket Australia’s official website had a write about the Ashwin duplicate.

Till Friday evening, the second day of practice in Alur, Pithiya could not find time to have a conversation with his folks back home — his father Viran, mother Maniben and brother Dinesh.

Pithiya said he is pinching himself after getting the opportunity to stay in the same team hotel as the Australians, travel in their team bus and bowl to Test batsmen from the No.1 team in the world.

“Junagadh is not known to produce cricketers, so it goes without saying that avenues hardly exist for a young player who wants to make it big. There is a lot of tennis ball cricket,” Pithiya said.

He followed in the footsteps of his tennis-cricket-crazy brother Dinesh. The boys played in the village but were looking for an opportunity to upgrade their skills. Pithiya heard about two boys from a nearby village who had made it to a cricket hostel in Porbandar. His brother encouraged him to go for trials — first in Junagadh and then Porbandar.

The Porbandar stint lasted just about six months and Pithiya felt he wasn’t progressing. “A coach called NK Sharma had come to the hostel on deputation. He advised me to move to Baroda. Good, I listened to him. I played for Baroda’s Under-19 team and also represented them in Ranji Trophy this year,” Pithiya said.

The Australians have started calling him ‘Ashwin’ but they are not the first because the similarity in delivery stride and the lead-up had been noticed by other teams in the past. The carrom ball is still a work in progress, Pithiya said. “I have an arm ball and a backspin delivery. I am working on a few variations,” Pithiya added.

Pithiya is scheduled to fly back home on Sunday by which time the Australians will be packing their bags and heading to Nagpur, the venue for the first Test match. “Being asked to bowl against the Australians was an unexpected opportunity. I will gain from it but I know I have a long way to go in my cricket career,” Pithiya said.

When he is home, even after he moved to Baroda to play cricket, Pithiya helps his parents by chipping in on the farm. “Groundnuts and wheat are what we grow. I work on the farm even now. One shouldn’t lose touch with one’s roots.”

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