Steve Smith had played scant attention to what was transpiring in the net next to him till then. He’d stuck to his customarily single-minded approach of getting his head and hands around the challenge ahead of him, alongside the constant and incessant banter with his tag-team partner Marnus Labuschagne, who was literally tagging with him in the same net.
It had been the classic Smith session, making sure his movements and alignment were all in precise order against the likes of Mitchell Swepson and Ashton Agar, both while defending and the times he would step out and smash one of them out of the ground.
That is till he heard Matthew Renshaw exclaim, “this guy bowls just like Ashwin” from the adjoining net. The left-handed Queenslander’s “well bowled Ash” boomed and echoed around the vast and otherwise serene expanse of Oval No. 2 at the KSCA Stadium in Alur. It was within the first couple of hours of Australia’s first training session of the India tour, where there was understandably an exclusive focus on facing spin.
To the extent that the session started with what looked like an impromptu selection trial for the many local spinners who’d turned up to bowl at Smith & Co. The one who’d really stood out though in the early going was someone the Australian team management had hand-picked themselves in the lead-up to their camp in Bengaluru. And it was Mahesh Pithiya who had caught Smith’s attention, especially after Renshaw had noticed the obvious similarities in bowling mechanisms between the youngster and Ravichandran Ashwin, Australia’s long-standing nemesis.
So much so that Smith paused his session, observed Pithiya’s next delivery to Renshaw keenly, sounded very impressed with what he saw, and immediately wanted to jump in and face the young Baroda off-spinner. And so he did.
It was this reputation of being an Ashwin ‘impersonator’ that had brought Pithiya to the Australian coaching staff’s notice in the first place. They had seen clips of Pithiya bowling on Instagram. And within days of playing his last Ranji Trophy match, Pithiya found himself being flown to Bengaluru, being housed in the same hotel as the Australia Test team and sharing a bus ride to the ground with the likes of Pat Cummins, Smith and Labuschagne.
All of a sudden, here he was bowling to one of the best batters to have ever played Test cricket. And even managing to get the better of him at times. It led to the most fascinating duel of Australia’s official opening day on tour as they went about getting their plans in order for the mighty Indian test that lies ahead.
Pithiya originally hails from Junagadh in Saurashtra and moved to Baroda purely due to his cricketing skills. Having grown up in a household with no television set, it wasn’t before he’d turned 11 that the slight off-spinner had watched Ashwin bowl – during the 2013 home series against West Indies to be specific. Only to realise how he already had an action which was kind of similar to the ace Indian spinner, and why most people who saw him bowl in his youth had stuck to calling him “Ashwin”. Or like he says, “I was rarely called by my original name. It was always Ashwin”.
Pithiya was spotted in a cricket camp while in college at Porbandar and consequently was made to shift base to Baroda as a future prospect. There he caught the eye of the Pathan brothers and has since trained very closely with Yusuf Pathan. He’d come through the junior ranks since and made his Ranji debut earlier this season. So, when he received a call from his friend, Pritesh Joshi, a throwdown specialist from Baroda who has been in constant touch with some of the Australian coaches in a bid to get a gig with them on tour, to come bowl at the Aussies, he couldn’t believe his luck.
There aren’t any physical similarities between Pithiya and his idol. He is slender in build and quite a few inches shorter than Ashwin. But what he does possess is a rather familiar load-up, delivery stride and release, including that very patented wrist position. It’s come through hours and hours of practice and also watching clips of Ashwin bowling, to the extent that he reveals to have more pictures and videos of Ashwin on his phone than his own. “It is my dream to meet him some day and I hope that happens soon,” he says as you quiz him about this rather unique connection.
Back in Alur, he was making quite an impression on Smith too. There was constant encouragement from the Australian vice-captain, the many “well bowled mate” calls interspersed with queries about what Pithiya had changed with his release to make the ball go a certain way. This was Smith at his best, breaking down the most intricate of the bowler’s plans and using them as inputs for his own preparation for the Ashwin-shaped obstacle that will stand in his way over the next month and a half.
While Smith did get into his groove rather quickly against Pithiya, there was a phase where the off-spinner had his own say. It started with Smith missing a sweep and getting bowled. Though not overly impressed with his own shot, the premier batter was verbally impressed with the bowler’s skill in getting past his defences. The next ball turned and jumped at Smith off a length. Then came a wristy cover-drive against the turn in classic Smith fashion. Followed by another foiled attempt at a sweep, with the ball slipping under his bat. And then another attempted sweep to a wide delivery outside off-stump, which saw Smith miss the ball and end up on his backside, much to his own amusement.
He did recover though and get his own back from that point on, producing an array of incredible shots with and against the turn, not so much to show who is boss but to show off just why he’s one of the best to ever play against spin.
When asked later about what he thought led to his mini triumphs against Smith, Pithiya mentioned “pace variations” but remained rather overawed by the fact that he’d even got to bowl to Smith, and what it meant to him.
The name Ashwin had done the rounds a few times earlier. Marnus Labuschagne was overheard talking about how Ashwin would have got the ball to go differently after he’d hit a local off-spinner for a six. And one of the coaches could be heard saying something on the lines of how Ashwin would jump in all over the batter if he sees him attempt a shot that the right-hander just had. Eventually even Andrew McDonald was spotted spinning his hands in Ashwin fashion while giving throwdowns later in the day.
Ashwin wasn’t the singular focus of the session. The visitors also had Shashank Mehrotra, another one of their hand-picked spinners, doubling up for Jadeja and Axar Patel. And there were other takeaways from Australia’s first outing, from Labuschagne working out different versions of playing the sweep and defending deep in his crease to Alex Carey attempting every known sweep shot in the world and Renshaw taking down spinners like he was still in BBL mode.
But the highlight was the unlikely impression that a relatively unknown Ashwin ‘impersonator’ left on Steve Smith on a day that Australia had a lot to take away from and a day that Mahesh Pithiya will never forget.(Cricbuzz)