18th July 2017 holds a lot of importance in the life of Aniket Choudhary. A relatively unknown commodity then, the left-arm pacer was bowling to the Indian team in nets when he was bought by Royal Challengers Bangalore for Rs. 2 Crores in the IPL auction.
“I had no expectations of being sold at a price anywhere even close to 2 crores," was what he had told us after the news of auction reached him. Five wickets in five matches at the T20 extravaganza and a South Africa tour with India A squad later, the Rajasthan-born speedster was honing his skills with the India Green squad for Duleep Trophy in Lucknow when Sportskeeda managed to catch up with him again.
Being a native, I couldn't help but start with how the city has been treating him. The city's been good, he said, before adding that this is not his first visit to Uttar Pradesh's capital.
The Ekana International Cricket Stadium in the city, which was recently grabbing headlines as the UPCA wanted to have one of the upcoming India-New Zealand ODIs there, hosted the Duleep Trophy opener being played this year. Though the stadium was still under construction - with fans being made to enter the stands through half-prepared ramps - the management made sure the facilities for the players were top notch.
"All facilities were A-one. You can't tell that the stadium is still under construction. Dressing rooms and all were completely prepared, the ground was good, floodlights were fine. Good enough for the players."
On a newly-laid pitch and with the Duleep Trophy being a day-night affair, this was the first time that Aniket was using the pink ball, and he seemed happy with the fact that it retains its shape and doesn't get softer with the play.
"The pink ball is not as difficult. SG ball gets softer with time, but the pink ball remains on the harder side. It doesn't help much with the swing as these balls are kookaburra, so the seam starts to deteriorate a bit."
The pitch, though, he admitted, was tailor-made for spinners.
"The pitch there is made up of red soil, so there was turn and bounce, better for the spinners in fact."
India A and the tour to South Africa
Prior to the domestic competition was the matter of travelling to South Africa with India A squad. A new experience for the tall left-arm pacer, the only test match he played there will surely serve as a learning curve and help him adjust to the various conditions he'll encounter in the future.
For someone who hasn't donned the blue of India yet, getting a go with the A team is what one looks forward to. An eye-catching performance or two might just attract the attention of selectors and the roadblocks on the path to the national team will even out.
"The India A tour was good. It's kind of a reward for all the hard-work you put in over the years. Moreover, a tour to South Africa is always considered a difficult one, so we had prepared well," he opined.
Reiterating that conditions there were not as favourable for fast bowling as expected, he said, "You had to put in more than you usually do.
"It was winter there, so the wickets were dead and on the slower side. I expected bouncier wickets there but that wasn't the case, so that was sort of a drawback."
With the likes of Mohammed Siraj in the India A ranks, who himself is aiming for the India cap, Aniket is aware that the race to the top won't be as easy as it looks to an outsider. However, stressing on the fact that 'strong mentality' is the key, the 27-year-old dismissed any feeling of competition with his India A teammates.
"As far as competition is considered, once you take the ground, you forget everything and play for the team. It's better to keep yourself focused on your goals and try and perform better than the last time you took the field."
On the tour, the pacer had the opportunity to work under the guidance of Rahul Dravid, the one common factor in every up and coming Indian youngster's story these days. The erstwhile Indian skipper has taken the onus upon himself to mould the country's next generation of cricketing superstars and Aniket was the latest addition to his ever-growing list of admirers.
"He makes us believe that we are good enough for the Indian team, and there is no interference from his side off the field. He guided us on how to perform as a bowling unit. If I'm not getting wickets then he'll ask me to bowl in a certain area so that other bowlers can benefit from the pressure I put. It was great to play under his tutelage."
Indian Premier League
Coming back to where Aniket's future started taking an altogether different shape, the Indian Premier League. The towering fast bowler underwent a rough start to the tournament, and the fact that RCB themselves were receiving hidings left, right and centre, only added to his woes. "You can't relax" was what the shortcomings of his first match and the rapid improvement in performances henceforth taught him.
"Great experience. At this level, you can't stay in your comfort zone, instead, you need to run the extra mile to stay in contention. Relax nai ho sakte app, itna tough competition hai."
The RCB-bowler held on patiently for around 20 days, after Yuvraj Singh had taken him to the cleaners, to play his second IPL match. And Aniket repaid the faith of his skipper, Virat Kohli. Though the team ended up on the losing side in all the matches he played, his numbers saw a considerable improvement. That night when Chris Lynn and Sunil Narine had chased down Bangalore's 159-run target in 15 overs, Choudhary's figure read 2.5-1-19-1.
Sharing the dressing room with bigwigs like Virat Kohli, AB de Villiers and Chris Gayle had clearly rubbed off on the bowler and the performances reaffirmed the notion.
"When I see Virat Kohli, it feels as if he's just started playing. The hunger to score runs is palpable, next level. He's achieved everything in his life, still the motivation level is absolutely mind-boggling. I've never seen him relaxed on-field. Attitude and approach are of utmost importance and that's what I learned from ABD and VK."
What might play in favour of Aniket here, though, is playing under the national captain for a good two months. "A huge plus point was that Kohli bhai is also the skipper of the national time, so it's comparatively easier to grab his attention."
Add to it the fact that he is probably one of the very few left-arm pacers in and around the Indian set-up. He, however, is clearly not taking anything for granted.
"Yes, I believe (being a left-arm pacer) it is an advantage and the situation is completely in my hands. If I perform well I will get selected."
"Fitness is my biggest issue"
Aniket also had the opportunity to delve deeper into the nuances of bowling at the MRF Pace Foundation, with greats like Glenn McGrath to guide him through. With "all sorts of facilities available round the clock", the pacer credits the set-up for the improvement he has had in his fitness, which according to him, is "my biggest issue".
"The foundation helped me improve my fitness. The physios and trainers there push you to do better, to come out of your comfort zone."
"This Ranji Trophy season is very important for me"
With Ranji season almost upon us, the Rajasthan pacer has made staying match-fit his primary aim and firmly believes in playing as many matches as possible.
"The most important thing is to keep yourself available for matches. The more matches you play, the better your chances of graduating to the higher level are. And Ranji preparations are already on. If you do well in Duleep, then naturally Ranji ke lie preparation achi ho jaati hai."
Rajasthan will be playing Jammu and Kashmir first up on 6th October in their Ranji opener in Jaipur and Aniket is geared up to stake his claim for a place in the national side.
"This domestic season is very important for me. If I do well now, then there are chances that the selectors might like me. My main mantra is to keep up the level of performance without thinking much about the selection. Naturally, if you do good, you will get selected."
Having bowled in the excess 200 overs in the last season of India's premier domestic tournament, the 27-year-old would be raring to make his mark on the season, and who knows his dream might materialise within two years from now.
"I have a feeling that I will be a part of the Indian squad for the World Cup some time in the future. You got to stay optimistic, obviously."