August 14 was a special day at the Government Colony in Bandra, Mumbai. The residents of the colony flocked to the Pote house. Everyone was waiting to catch a glimpse of the inaugural match of Ultimate Kho Kho.
Gujarat Giants was playing Mumbai Khiladis and the colony’s beloved boy Aniket Pote was about to appear on live television.
The game started. Aniket collected five points, and was also the best defender of the game. Gujarat won and the telecast was over. The residents, however, continued making trips to Aniket’s house. ‘ Aniket aaya ki nahin?(Is Aniket back?), they would ask.
“Usually we play the tournament and then return on the same day. Rarely do we go for a tournament and stay at the venue for a longer period of time,” Aniket explained.
Accustomed to Aniket returning on the same day of his games, the residents were expecting him to come back this time as well. They had no idea that Ultimate Kho Kho would require Aniket to stay in Pune for another month.
“My mother came to see me play in Pune. When she returned to Mumbai, everyone thought that I would be returning as well. They kept asking ‘ Aniket kahan hai (where is Aniket?).”
Aniket’s stay in Pune turned out to be fruitful, for him and his team. Gujarat Giants topped the league with seven wins in 10 games. Aniket notched up 53 points.
“ Aniket Pote jaise players household naam ban gaye hain (Players like Aniket have become household names),” Gujarat Giants coach Sanjeev Sharma said. The new-found fame, Aniket feels, is a reward for his journey so far.
“I started playing in class six. My sir, Narendra Kunder Vithal, who is the coach of Rajasthan Warriors in Ultimate Kho Kho, saw me for the first time in Mallakhamb. He thought my fitness level was good and asked me to join Kho Kho practice.”
More than the coach’s interest, Aniket confessed why he decided to try out the new sport. “ Class bunk karke ye match hai yahan jao. Lecture mei batanekaa sir practice hai, jaana hai (I got to bunk classes for games. I told my teachers, ‘Sir, I have practice, i’ll have to go’).”
Aniket dabbled with Kabaddi as well. He played in state-level tournaments. Before one could point out his love for indigenous sports, Aniket quickly said, “ Cricket bhi khela hun (I have played cricket also).”
“I used to pick one sport and play it,” he said. In Aniket’s case, one sport includes every sport known to a high school kid.
It was consistent success in Kho Kho that made Aniket persist with it. “In class seven, I played my first tournament in Under 14. In class eight, I made it to the nationals in the same age category. Later, I progressed to Under 17, Under 18, and Under 19 nationals.”
Even after his progress, playing Kho Kho professionally seemed an unrealistic idea. Let alone playing for India.
“ Jab shuru kiya toh ye nahin socha tha professionally khelunga (When I started I did not think I would play professionally) .” Aniket’s journey has had its share of ebbs and flows.
“The year I got selected for Under 14, there was a federation cup. I couldn’t make it to the team. I got depressed. I asked my sir, ‘Why did this happen to me? I got selected for the U14 nationals then what happened here?’ I was losing interest.”
He found the strength to continue playing. Breaking into the U17 setup kept the passion alive.
Aniket hit a roadblock again a few years later. This time it was the changes in the game that caused trouble to him. “I faced a stagnant period for two years for the senior spots. The length of the ground increased and my stepping was a bit of an issue. This caused a bit of a gap,” Aniket said.
At this low point, it was motivation from Aniket’s father that kept him going. “My father was really fond of my game. Whenever I played a tournament, wherever it may have been, he used to bring newspaper cuttings of my matches. He used to tell me that you’ve got a mention in the newspaper and then collect them.”
It was in 2015 that Aniket finally broke into the senior team and represented India. And he’s never looked back since.
Even after the India call-up, and playing in various tournaments like South Asian Games, one unfulfilled desire bugged him.
“ Papa ka sapna tha ki mujhe TV pe dekhein (It was my father’s dream to watch me on TV).” It was not to be. His father passed away in May due to cancer.
“ Abhi TV pe aa gaya, but vo nahin dekh paaye (I’ve appeared on TV now but he could not see it),” Aniket said. It’s a sadness the Shiv Chhatrapati awardee will carry with him as his career gets the league and television spotlight. He is making a mark in the league, but stays grounded. “I don’t consider myself to be a big name.”
His focus is on winning the maiden edition of Ultimate Kho Kho. “Our (team) motto is simple. Treat every match like it is a final. Do not try anything special and continue with the mentality to win.”
The 27-year-old will look to do the same when his team faces Telugu Yoddhas in the second qualifier on Saturday.
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