On May 1, Gopal Choudhary and Prembai Choudhary traveled over 500 km from their home in Yavatmal, Maharashtra, to Pune to watch their son Mukesh play cricket live at a ground. It was their first time for them. They had offered premium seating, and generally being treated like royalty only added to it.
"It was an amazing feeling to watch him play live and do so well. I had only watched him live on the internet earlier. Before the Mushtaq Ali T20s in Lucknow [last November], Mukesh called and asked us to subscribe to Hotstar to be able to watch him play [on TV]. But this experience was something else."Gopal Choudhary said
Gopal had recalled the time his younger son packed his bags as a 13-year-old and left Jaipur with his older brother to move to study at the Sinhagad Institute in Pune. "He always liked cricket, but he moved mainly to study," Gopal says.
The family had no background in sports. Gopal, a stone crusher, moved near Yavatmal in Maharashtra in the mid-1980s for work but left his sons back in Bhilwara, Rajasthan, where they grew up in a hostel close to their maternal grandparents' home. Bhilwara back then had just one multi-purpose ground, which used to host carnivals more often than it did cricket matches.
Choudhary's cricket skills were spotted during his days in Pune. One of his friends, a club cricketer, saw him bowl at Pune's Law College grounds in a league game and suggested he train at the 22 Yards Cricket Academy, co-founded by former Maharashtra captain and national selector Surendra Bhave. There, he could hone his game on turf wickets instead of bowling on cement pitches.
At the academy, Choudhary caught the eye of several senior Maharashtra players who came to train there during the off-season, including Kedar Jadhav, Rahul Tripathi, Swapnil Gugale, and Ankeet Bawne, Maharashtra's current captain.
"This was around 2015 that he first came to our academy," 22 Yards head coach Rajesh Mahurkar remembers.
"He didn't have much space, but there was something we could work with. Along with him, there were two other left-arm pacers. We spoke to all three of them and told them that there is talent, and we could work with it if they're serious. That is how he started."Rajesh Mahurkar said remembering those days
"We worked on his action, and pace, and got him up to speed with his fitness. What stood out was, rain or shine, he was very punctual. He wouldn't miss training."
"As we got him in shape to become a competent bowler, we had our next challenge. How do we get him to play more matches?"
"The academy wasn't eligible to field a team at the Maharashtra Cricket Association's invitational tournament. It featured the state's top club sides and was a key event for the state selectors picking teams across age groups and for first-class cricket."
In 2017, Choudhary was impressed with his pace and accuracy at the RedBull Campus Cricket tournament. He had played for the MMCC College. Among his teammates was an upcoming batter, Ruturaj Gaikwad, who would go on to recommend Choudhary as a net bowler to Chennai Super Kings in 2021.
By then Choudhary had already bowled in the nets in the IPL, for Sunrisers Hyderabad and Mumbai Indians. However, after fine-tuning his action during a two-year stint at the MRF Pace Academy in Chennai. There he trained under head coach M Senthil Nathan, who has been associated with the academy for over two decades. He has worked alongside Dennis Lillee and Glenn McGrath.
Harshal Pathak, the former Maharashtra cricketer who now coaches the Thailand women's national team, signed Choudhary for Cadence Academy, one of the top clubs in Pune, soon after he returned from his first stint at the MRF Academy. A year later, on Tripathi's recommendation, Choudhary moved to Deccan Gymkhana, the city's oldest and most prestigious club, to train under former Maharashtra cricketer Satyajit Sarabhai.
"He's at that stage where he isn't insecure anymore," Bawne says. "He knows he is a regular. He is a bowler to who a captain can throw the ball at any stage without thinking about whether he's ready or not. I remember a game against Odisha, which we needed to win outright. There was just one session left and we needed to pick up six wickets or so and then chase down a small total.
"He bowled ten to 12 overs on the trot, took four wickets, and we won the game."That attitude comes from within – the willingness to wheel away even on the most placid pitches.
It's no surprise CSK has backed him despite some tough games, where he has been hit for runs. He's a quick learner, persistent, and an honest trier."
"Everyone in the Pune circles describes Choudhary as shy, polite, and simple". Mahurkar, who perhaps knows him better than most, speaks highly of his discipline and work ethic. "You will never see him gossiping about anyone. Hardly uses a mobile phone, max one to two hours a day. No WhatsApp, no Facebook. If he must communicate, he'll just prefer to call."
"He comes, quietly trains, does all his drills, he'll come up and talk to us about something he wants to work on in the coming week, and that's that. You won't see him idling. If he's happy with one aspect of his bowling, he will work on the next. Lately, over the past year or so, he's been working hard to improve his pace. He has identified what he needs to do to get there. He has tremendously improved his fitness and diet. That way he's very systematic."
Before this year's IPL auction – his first – Choudhary appeared confident about being picked up by a franchise. "He said MS Dhoni liked his bowling and has been encouraging him a lot, and possibly CSK could give him a call-up," Mahurkar says. "It's no surprise they actually bid for him and picked him up at the auction.
"Having watched Choudhary's evolution from close quarters, Mahurkar believes the next step in his journey is for him to become consistent across formats. "His strength is to bowl the ball across the right-hander, but lately he has developed the ball that moves into the right-hander, away from the left-hander.
"He mentions the dismissal of Mumbai Indians opener Ishan Kishan from earlier this season as an example. In a game-changing new-ball spell, Choudhary knocked out an off-balance Kishan's off stump with an outswinger and finished as Player of the Match with 3 for 19.