Steve Smith till then had paid little attention to what was going on in front of him in the nets. He stuck to his typically single-minded approach of getting his head and hands around the challenge ahead of him, along with constant and incessant banter with his tag-team partner Marnus Labuschagne.
It was a classic Smith session, making sure his moves and alignment were all in the right order against the likes of Mitchell Swepson and Ashton Agar, both when defending and when he came out and forced one of them down the field. Were.
By then he heard Matthew Renshaw from the adjacent net saying, “This guy bowls just like Ashwin”. The left-handed Queenslander’s “well-bowled ashes” bounced and echoed around the vast and otherwise serene expanse of Oval No. 2 at the KSCA Stadium in Alur.
To such an extent that the season started like an impromptu selection test for the many local spinners who came to bowl at Smith & Co. The early stages were really the most isolated of any Australian team. The management had chosen itself to lead its camp in Bengaluru. And it was Mahesh Pithia who caught Smith’s attention, especially after Renshaw had noticed a clear similarity in bowling mechanism between the youngster and Ravichandran Ashwin, Australia’s long-standing nemesis.
Smith even paused his session to curiously watch Pithia’s next delivery to Renshaw, impressed by what he saw and immediately wanted to face the young off-spinner from Baroda. And he did just that.
It was this reputation of being an Ashwin ‘impersonator’ that first attracted Pithia to the attention of the Australian coaching staff. He had seen clips of Pithia bowling on Instagram. And within days of playing his last Ranji Trophy match, Pithia found himself in Bengaluru, put up in the same hotel with the Australia Test team and sharing a bus ride with the likes of Pat Cummins, Smith and Labuschagne.
Suddenly, here he was bowling to one of the best batsmen ever to play Test cricket. And sometimes even succeed in getting better than that. It led to one of Australia’s most intriguing opening day doubles on the tour as they go about their plans for the mighty Indian Tests ahead.
Pithia originally hails from Junagadh in Hundred Nations and moved to Baroda ostensibly because of his cricketing skills. The modest off-spinner didn’t see Ashwin bowl until he was 11 – during the 2013 home series against the West Indies, to be specific. Only to realize that he already had an action that was very similar to that of the ace Indian spinner,
Pithia was spotted at a cricket camp during college in Porbandar and as a result was made to shift base to Baroda as a future prospect. There he attracted the Pathan brothers and from then on he trained closely with Yusuf Pathan. He has since come through the junior ranks and made his Ranji debut earlier this season. Joe was in constant touch with some of the Australian coaches on the tour, calling him to bowl in the Australian team.
Back in Alur, he was also exerting considerable influence on Smith. There was constant encouragement from the Australian vice-captain, interspersed with several “good bowling partner” calls to ask what Pythia had changed with his release to get the ball moving in a certain direction. This was Smith at his best, breaking down the bowler’s most intricate plans and using them as inputs for his preparation for an obstacle of Ashwin’s size over the next month and a half.
While Smith quickly settled into his rhythm against Pithia, there was a phase where the off-spinner had a say. It started with Smith not sweeping and getting bowled. Although not much impressed with his own shot, the leading batsman was verbally impressed with the bowler’s skill in getting past his defence. The next ball turns and Smith hits a length. Then came a wrist cover-drive against the turn in classic Smith fashion. This was followed by another failed sweep attempt, the ball going out from 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 back, much to his own amusement.
However he recovered and from that point made his own comeback, producing a series of incredible shots with and against the twist,
When later asked what he thought of his mini-victory against Smith, Pithia referred to the “pace variation”, but was more impressed by the fact that he had to bowl to Smith, and that meant a lot for him. What did you mean?
But the highlight was the impression a relatively unknown Ashwin ‘impersonator’ made on Steve Smith on a day that Australia had a lot to take from and a day that Mahesh Pithia will never forget.