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Jitesh Sharma didn't want a career in cricket but he got one anyway

The Punjab Kings and Vidarbha batter talks about his unusual journey to the highest level

Jitesh Sharma decided to become a wicketkeeper when asked at a schools trial if he was one  •  BCCI

Jitesh Sharma decided to become a wicketkeeper when asked at a schools trial if he was one  •  BCCI

Until 2022, Jitesh Sharma's IPL experience was limited to being in the dressing room and soaking in life lessons from his heroes at Mumbai Indians in 2017. When he finally got an opportunity to play in the tournament for Punjab Kings last year, the 28-year-old grabbed attention with his audacious strokeplay for Punjab Kings.
That paved the way for an India call-up earlier this month for the home series against Sri Lanka. Now he's part of the T20I squad for the New Zealand series, and irrespective of whether he plays or not, Jitesh is sure he has the skill sets it takes to make a go of it at the highest levels.
In this chat with ESPNcricinfo Hindi, Jitesh spoke about his formative years, his IPL experience, and how the more he tried to run away from cricket, the more it refused to let him go.
Did you imagine when you started all those years ago in Amravati that you would make it to the Indian team one day?
I never wanted to play cricket. Frankly, I had no interest. I used to play with a plastic ball, but my cricket progressed when I started playing to get more marks at school. In Maharashtra there's a rule where, by Class X if you play for the state team, you get 4% extra marks. I used to play football for my school, but my friends told me our school's cricket team is good and if I got picked for the state, I could get more marks. I attended the school cricket trials only to chase those extra marks. The school didn't have a wicketkeeper, so when they asked me if I'm a keeper, I just casually said I was. I started keeping from that day onwards. I caught the ball well and came into the school team, and by Class X, I had played for the state.
Our school matches used to happen at the club ground in Amravati. Amar More, one of the coaches there, suggested I play cricket seriously. I told him it was my dream to join the defence forces and that I wasn't interested in cricket. But he insisted I try. In my first year of Under-16 trials, I got picked for the Vidarbha team. Then when I went to Class XI, I thought I wouldn't play, but my father advised me to use cricket as a means to get fit because fitness was an important parameter to clear the NDA (National Defence Academy) exams that I wanted to take after Class XII.
Then as I progressed to the Under-19 level, again I got picked in the very first year [I was eligible]. In fact, I was among the youngest players in the U-19s for Vidarbha. Then, again chasing the 4% extra marks in class XII, I continued playing. I was studying physics, chemistry and maths and I needed to get a certain amount of marks to qualify. When I got picked in the U-19s for the second year and performed, that's when I realised I had a chance to become the captain too.
"I used to keep looking at Rohit Sharma from a distance, used to watch him bat, and when he called me by my name for the first time, I felt like I had received everything in life"
I realised my life was taking me down a different path! (laughs). The passion started trickling in then. It wasn't on my mind that I should play for India or anything. I liked playing because we'd travel, stay in good hotels, see different places. I liked cricket for that.
Where were you when you got the call-up for the Sri Lanka T20Is? Did you expect it?
I didn't expect to be picked because the team had already been selected. I knew I had to do well in the IPL if I had to come into the reckoning. I wasn't in the Ranji team, so I was preparing on my own, and then when Sanju [Samson] got injured, I got the call.
I didn't know whether to call my dad, younger brother or friends. I went home and then sat down calmly and told my dad and brother. They were all very excited. The day I joined the Indian team, I got a very warm welcome. Rahul [Dravid] sir was there, Paras [Mhambrey] sir was around - I'd played four years under him at Vidarbha.
I had played in the IPL, so you're used to that mental pressure. The stress was a lot less. I had an idea of how all of this works and I felt comfortable.
It was an emotional moment entering that dressing room. When you go into the India dressing room, it's a responsibility you carry. I look at it as a challenge. Maybe I've got this far because god thinks I'm strong enough to carry this responsibility. The dressing room is always smiling and happy, whether we win or lose.
A few years ago you were signed by Mumbai Indians. What are your memories from that stint?
It was the best two years of my life. I was immature and I got to learn a lot. MI treated me like family, never made me feel like a new player. I spoke very little in the dressing room but I learnt a lot by watching. I used to be happy just listening to Sachin Tendulkar's voice. I used to keep looking at him, I used to keep looking at Rohit Sharma from a distance, used to watch him bat, and when he called me by my name for the first time, I felt like I had received everything in life.
I was very young, I knew I wouldn't get a chance to play because we had Jos Buttler, Nicholas Pooran and Parthiv Patel. But I had the opportunity to grab as much knowledge as I could, learn from them, learn how they prepare, carry themselves, react to situations, their mentality in games. Those two years I learnt a lot and I have carried all of that with me.
The Jitesh Sharma who played for Punjab Kings last year was a different player. You were recognised for your finishing, especially after you made a quick-fire 44 against Delhi Capitals.
Everyone was sad because we lost. I was angry because I knew I could have finished the game off. We were two hits away and I had got the team close. That was a crucial game. Had we won that, our team's history and mine might have been different. But the coach and seniors were happy with my attitude, because under pressure I managed to take the game till the end when no one believed we could.
Anil Kumble [coach] was very happy. Mayank [Agarwal], Shikhar [Dhawan] bhai, Jonny [Bairstow], Liam [Livingstone], all of them appreciated my fighting spirit. Punjab Kings have some confidence in me after that effort. When a team invests in you, it's your duty to deliver returns. I'm very grateful for the chances. It's my responsibility to back their confidence in me.
What other special memories do you have of the IPL?
I had an interaction with MS Dhoni for 10-15 minutes after my IPL debut. I requested Ambati Rayudu, who I've played with at Vidarbha [to introduce us]. I asked him [Dhoni] how I can sustain myself at this level and make it big. He spoke in simple terms, and since then there has been no confusion in my head. He said cricket is the same everywhere. The SMAT [Mushtaq Ali T20 tournament] intensity is lower, IPL is slightly higher and for India, it is the highest.
You don't change much of what you've got, you just need to tweak your intensity to the level you're at.
Now that you have made it to the doorstep of the Indian team, is the 2023 World Cup on your mind at all?
I'm not looking that far ahead. I'm not that kind of guy. I look at one game at a time. I know there's also the 2024 T20 World Cup, but if you focus on one thing at a time, automatically you tend to get that. I don't want to go to the near the World Cup, I want the World Cup to come closer to me. I'm focusing on that.

Syed Hussain is a multimedia journalist with ESPNcricinfo Hindi @imsyedhussain