Ankit-Sharma (1)

The Indian state of Madhya Pradesh (MP) has had a rich cricketing legacy. India’s first Test captain Col. CK Nayudu was from this part of India. He represented the Holkar team, which played the Ranji Trophy for a decade and a half in the 1940s and 1950s and later made way for the Madhya Pradesh team in domestic cricket. Some big names that featured alongside Nayudu in that illustrious era where Holkar won the title four times include Syed Mushtaq Ali, Chandu Sarwate, Hiralal Gaekwad and Denis Compton (yes, you read it right. The legendary English cricketer was serving the British Army during Second World War and was stationed in central India when he got the permission to play Ranji Trophy.)

Over the years, the MP Ranji team has produced some top-class players, but has failed to replicate the success of its glorious predecessors. The likes of Rajesh Chauhan, Narendra Hirwani, Amay Khurasiya and recently Naman Ojha have represented India. Ishwar Pandey and Jalaj Saxena have been on the fringes (the latter will be playing for Kerala in Ranji Trophy this season). The list, which finds a place in MP cricket team’s Wikipedia page, has some big names. And in the end, one last name may surprise you if you do not follow India’s domestic cricket. The list ends with Ankit Sharma, the talented left-arm spinner and a handy lower-order batsman, who was instrumental in team’s dream run to the semi-final last year.

The new generation of cricket fans, which loves T20 cricket, knows him as the Rising Pune Supergiants (RPS) player, who formerly played for Rajasthan Royals (RR), Sunrisers Hyderabad (SRH) and the now-defunct Deccan Chargers (DC) in the Indian Premier League (IPL). But ask the soft-spoken Ankit, and he says he takes pride in representing MP. His 33 wickets in last Ranji season was a coming of age performance for him. And with Jalaj Saxena moving base to Kerala by signing as a professional cricketer this year, Ankit will have a greater role to play this season which kick starts with the Ranji Trophy 2016-17 from Thursday. Far from the spotlight of Holkar Stadium, which hosts the third India-New Zealand Test from Saturday, Ankit and the boys who regularly play at their home ground will be away in Hyderabad playing Uttar Pradesh (UP) in their opening encounter. ALSO READ: LIVE Cricket Score Ranji Trophy 2016-17, Day 1

Ahead of the new season, Chinmay Jawalekar caught up with him for an exclusive interview to discuss his journey thus far and the road ahead.

Here are the excerpts:

Cricket Country (CC): So, Ankit, how did it all start?

Ankit Sharma (AS): It all started with the gully cricket, which I too played like any other young kid. Then soon it turned into a passion. Thankfully, my parents were supportive. My uncles — Dr. Amit Saxena and Mukesh Pandit — spotted my talent early and suggested my father to make me pursue the sport. That is how I joined a club in my hometown Gwalior. My grandfather, who was retired by then, used to drop me to the club every day. This became a routine and slowly cricket became my life.

CC: You are an all-rounder now. But was it always the same? What was your first interest — batting or bowling?

AS: I was more inclined towards batting initially, like any other youngster. But as I grew up, people around me who saw my game encouraged me to bowl, as they were impressed by my occasional spin bowling. So I started bowling more often and once I made it to the Gwalior team at the divisional-level, I was a regular spinner in the side.

CC: At what age did you start taking professional coaching? Who was your first mentor?

AS: When I was around 10 – 10 and a half years old, I joined the Rishi Galav Cricket Academy in Gwalior. My first coaches / mentors were Mohammad Arif Sir and Hardeep Gill Sir. Right from the beginning till date, they have always taken care of the most minute of details of my training. When I go to the academy even today, they plan my training schedule separately and work on specific aspects of my game.

CC: When and how did you decide to take up cricket as a profession?

AS: It was when I first started playing divisional cricket that I realised I have reached somewhere and decided to pursue cricket as a profession. I made it to the MP team in age-group cricket in a year and another year later, I was the captain of Under-15 team. One more year as a player followed and things started rolling.

CC: You made your First-Class debut as a teenager. Any memories of that game?

AS: I was playing One-Day cricket at Under-19 level those days and had done well in the JP Atray cricket tournament, which led to my selection to the MP Under-19 team and subsequently the MP Ranji team in 2009. I was not picked in the final XI in the first match, which opened a window to play in a Under-22 match in Gwalior, which was taking place simultaneously. I went there and playing as a night-watchman, scored 98. My coach in that game was Manish Majithia Sir, another left-arm spinner who played for MP. It was his decision to send me as a night-watchman, which turned out to be a masterstroke.

The performance in that game earned me my First-Class debut in the next match against Kerala, which unfortunately was affected by rain. I cannot forget that moment when MP coach Mukesh Sahani Sir and captain Hrishikesh Kanitkar informed me I was in the playing XI.

List A debut followed, where I did well with both bat and ball against Vidarbha.

CC: On a quick note, you made your debut under Hrishikesh Kanitkar and he was a part of the coaching staff at RPS. How has been your experience with him?

AS: I was very young when I made my First-Class debut and the likes of Hrishi Bhaiya (Kanitkar), Bundi Bhaiya (Devendra Bundela), Abbas Ali Bhaiya and Sanjay Pandey Bhaiya were all senior pros. They all made me understand how I need to imbibe the virtue of patience at First-Class level as the batsmen here will make fewer mistakes and I will have to earn my wickets. Hrishi Bhaiya was also the assistant coach (fielding) with RPS this year and it was like things coming full circle with him. I have learnt a lot from him.

CC: How did IPL happen to you?

AS: I was only 19 when I got picked for the DC side to play in the IPL. Though I did not get many opportunities, but working alongside Amit Mishra, Pragyan Ojha and coach Darren Lehmann and reading the way they approached their game did a world of good to my confidence. I learnt a lot under all of them, like how I need to be consistent at this level to stay in the mix and what all changes I need to incorporate in my game.

Mishy Bhaiya, in particular, was very supportive. He would keep me with him most of the times and tell about the dos and donts.

CC: How has the IPL influenced your game?

AS: Over the years, I got the opportunity to play for SRH, RR and RPS. I have realised in all the years how I need to continuously change my work ethics to meet the increasing demands of the game. When I play alongside and share dressing room with big stars and the overseas players, I see their work ethics, the way they train and approach a game and try to imbibe it in my method of preparation.

Lot of people argue that the IPL has become a distraction for youngsters. But to me, it has been a learning curve. It is not everyday that you get a chance to bowl alongside World’s No. 1 bowler Ravichandran Ashwin in the nets, or to get tips from the likes of Steven Smith, Kevin Pietersen, Dale Steyn or Shane Watson. I learn a lot everytime I play with them and try to apply those things in four-day cricket.

CC: The Ranji Trophy season 2015-16 was a watershed one for you personally. Thoughts on it?

AS: Yes, by God’s grace, I did well. I am happy my 33 wickets in the season, including 13 against Andhra Pradesh and 9 against J&K, helped my team to qualify for the knockouts. I regret we were knocked out in the semis. But on a personal note, the season was satisfying.

CC: How has working under the MP stalwarts Narendra Hirwani and Amay Khurasiya helped you?

AS: The results I achieved last year were predominantly due to the off-season practice session with Hirwani Sir and Khurasiya Sir. I have been regularly practicing under them for last 2-3 years during the off-season in Indore. MP Cricket Association (MPCA) conducts camps for us during this period, where we get to learn a lot. Hirwani Sir’s inputs on spin bowling have helped me big time while Khurasiya Sir pushes me all the time as he believes I have batting potential. I feel lucky and privileged to get the chance to learn from them.

For last couple of years as MP coach, Harvinder Singh Sodhi Sir has also helped me improve a lot.

CC: And how has the towering presence of Sanjay Jagdale influenced your career?

AS: Bade Sir (Jagdale) is always around. With the wealth of experience he has, it always helps. He keeps a close eye on each player’s game and picks small things, which matter a lot actually. He is an institution in himself and the guiding force behind the team.

CC: Coming back to IPL, you have played alongside legends like Rahul Dravid and MS Dhoni. Your thoughts on that experience?

AS: Rahul Bhai is a living legend. With all that he has achieved, he still remains down-to-earth and humble. I was a bit apprehensive in approaching him when I first joined RR. It was natural of me as I had grown up watching him play and idolising him. But he is very approachable and in fact makes the youngsters feel comfortable around him. When he told me I was doing well in the nets and was going to play my first game for RR, it was a moment of pride and confidence for me. His approach towards the game is very simple and he provides simple solutions to counter / fix the problems in your game.

As far as Mahi Bhai is concerned, to be honest, I have always idolised him. I first saw him in Gwalior during a Duleep Trophy match between East Zone and Central Zone in February 2005, where I was a ball picker (ball boy). Since then, I have followed his game. Joining RPS this year was a different feeling altogether. He too is a simple and grounded man. During the net sessions, we spoke a lot. He told me what should the approach be while bowling to different batsmen, what kind of lengths, trajectory et al to be adopted for different batsmen. His work ethics are tremendous. Spending a season at RPS with him has influenced me a lot and to some extent influenced the way I see the game now.

CC: They say too many cooks spoil the broth. Does working with so many coaches these days go against a player?

AS: Not really. It is true that in the age of league cricket, a player has to work with many coaches as against the earlier days. However, the basics of the game remain the same and all the coaches ask to stick to the basics, like there should be flight in your deliveries, the ball should toss up a bit, should have rotations and all. So, having too many coaches does not affect.

CC: The upcoming Ranji season will see teams play at neutral venues. With the home advantage diluted, how do you see this development and what will your approach be?

AS: As a cricketer, one should be able to adjust his game according to conditions. He should be as comfortable playing in Chennai as in Lahli or Rajkot or any other place for that matter. It is a new challenge, the neutral venue thing. I am working on the line and lengths for flat decks. Also working a lot on my batting, as I personally feel I lagged on that front in the last season. I got starts but could not capitalise. With neutral venues, you cannot predict what score is good. It will vary. So runs from lower-order will be crucial. Hence working on my batting too. Hope it comes out good.

I have also worked on making my action smooth so that I can bowl long spells. Besides, have put in efforts on getting the flight and turn right.

CC: Naman Ojha and Ishwar Pandey have been with the Indian team in recent times. What kind of experience do they bring to the MP dressing room and how does it help you?

AS: Their experience obviously helps the team. There are times when our bowling unit does well but wickets do not come. In such situations, these guys bring all their experience to the table. Naman Bhaiya especially, being a wicketkeeper, reads the game well and suggests what kind of line and length to bowl. Besides, their presence encourages others to do well and play for Team India one day.

CC: Having shared the dressing room with Team India players, what are the plans and aspirations for the future?

AS: Like any other cricketer, I want to play Test cricket for India. That is the only objective with which I started playing the game. My wickets tally has gone up in last two seasons and I hope to deliver this year too besides contributing with the bat this season. The idea is to do well here and in the IPL opportunities that come my way. That is all in my hand. If I keep the basics right and follow the right process, that involves training as well, desired results will surely follow.

CC: Did your education get affected all this while?

AS: My family as well as the institutions where I studied were very supportive. So I completed my studies up to graduation easily. I also work with the Audit General as an auditor at the moment.

CC: A quick-fire round now: Your hobbies?

AS: Listening to music, hanging out with friends.

CC: Favourite music?

AS: Hindi, Punjabi.

CC: Favourite film?

AS: The Rocky series.

CC: Favourite cricketer / role model?

AS: MS Dhoni.

CC: Favourite cricketing moment so far?

AS: First-Class debut for MP and my maiden wicket.

CC: Best friend?

AS: Palash Kochar (MP teammate).

CC: Most tough batsman to bowl at?

AS: AB de Villiers.

CC: Most difficult bowler to face?

AS: Mitchell Starc.

CC: One word for Dhoni?

AS: Ummm. Two words I think. ‘Captain Cool’.

CC: One word for Rahul Dravid?

AS: Gentleman.

CC: Prankster in MP team?

AS: Ishwar Pandey.

CC: One thing about you nobody knows?

AS: I am a big foodie and can cook really well.

CC: Thanks for the time Ankit. It was a pleasure talking to you. All the best for the upcoming season.

AS: Thank you!

(A self-confessed cricket freak, Chinmay Jawalekar is a senior writer with CricketCountry. When not writing or following cricket, he loves to read, eat and sleep. He can be followed here @CricfreakTweets)