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All those performances and hard work won’t go unrecognized, my time will come, vows Ankit Bawne

‘As a cricketer, you only play for the one dream,’ the Maharashtra veteran revealed while reflecting on a gruesome journey. Most settle for much lower ambitions, but as Ankit Bawne made clear in an exclusive interview, the batter simply loves challenges and he would not have it any other way.

By some approximations, over 5 million people in India play cricket in one form or another. The Board of Control for Cricket India has over 6,000 players registered with it at the highest professional level. Yet, in the nation’s 90-year Test history, only 303 players have been able to wear the all-whites with the Indian emblem stitched on their caps.

Cricket is difficult, especially in India. Every nook and corner of the country has a plethora of aspiring cricketers dreaming of one day representing the Men in Blue. Imagining themselves following in the footsteps of the Virat Kohlis and MS Dhonis. If Robert Frost were Indian, he would perhaps have realized that the road already trodden is way more difficult when it comes to pursuing cricket. Then, choosing this path as the one you want to take at the tender age of 15 and harbouring the dream from before you even become an adult? Sounds like a tough life to live. An improbable challenge — but that is exactly what Maharashtra veteran Ankit Bawne thrives on.

“Thankfully, I understood the value of representing Maharashtra early and every time I went on to bat or field, I gave all my heart and placed my body on the line. Even in the [Vijay Hazare Trophy] finals the other day, I was injured with a grade two tear on my hip but still went on to play because it has always been my team first for me over my body,” the enigmatic batter revealed in an exclusive interview with Sportscafe.

“As a cricketer, this is what you want to do, right? I’ve always idolized Sachin Tendulkar sir because of what he has done for cricket for more than 20 years. Sachin started playing international cricket when he was 15 and if he can do that at the international level, we can at least do it for the state, right? All these people serve as a great motivation, especially when you are young. Also, I realized early that in professional cricket if you don’t perform consistently, you can’t sustain on the circuit.”

While the world celebrated Christmas with great aplomb in 2007, Ankit’s family sat with bated breath as the baby-faced lanky teenager took the field to make his first-class debut. The Aurangabad-born batter was immediately given a trial by fire as he padded up to open the innings against the fearsome Vinay Kumar, breaking through at the ripe age of 23. Bawne valiantly lasted an entire hour and tallied 42 runs before eventually nicking one to the wicketkeeper. 

The encounter almost seemed to foreshadow what the future held for Ankit – amidst the celebrations of others, the youngster was battling challenges in a world of his own; but 13 years into his career, the Maharashtrian carries no regrets.

“Playing at a young age made me so mature. I had to keep performing just to stick around and keep representing Maharashtra. I think what I had and what I lived in the last 15 years was way better than a chilled-out life,” Bawne reflected.

Ankit was not just an ordinary young cricketer though. He was exceptionally gifted and always among the leading performers in his age group. The batter was thrust into captaincy ever since his early days and has since gone on to lead Maharashtra across formats. To understand the respect that Ankit garners in Indian cricket, the batter was named captain of an India ‘A’ side that included future India team skippers Rishabh Pant and KL Rahul. The 29-year-old stated he revels in the challenge that captaincy brings, being a team player through and through.

“When you play as a captain, you don’t only represent yourself. You represent the whole state. I represent Maharashtra if I’m captaining Maharashtra so the responsibility is bigger, but with bigger responsibility comes a great challenge and I love challenges. If you are a captain, you have to lead from the front, you have to set an example for others in the team. Inspire them to think that, ‘at least we can try out a couple of things and give 100% for him and the team.’ So my only goal when I play as the captain is to deliver and lead from the front.”

“The experience I have also plays an important role in cricket. If you see the better captains or the experienced players, because they have seen so much in the game, they can run the game better,” Bawne further affirmed.

It was at India A that Ankit got the opportunity to be under the tutelage of then-head coach Rahul Dravid. The duo also spent some time together at the Delhi Daredevils, where the batter played his first and only IPL game in 2017. The legendary batter’s advice continues to play an impact on the budding cricketer’s career, over a year since the two parted ways as Dravid moved on to coach the senior Indian squad.

“When I was with him in India A, I used to ask a lot of questions and his knowledge has helped me a lot, as you could see in the performances I have been putting in the Ranji Trophy last year or this year’s Vijay Hazare trophy. At this age, cricket usually needs more mental maturing than physical or game-wise improvement. The skill is always there but all those small-small mental things are very important. Because Rahul sir has lived cricket so much, having more than 20,000 International runs, with his experience and exposure he could just simply answer all my questions. All the time that I have spent with him really helped me learn a lot of game sense,” a grateful Bawne acknowledged.

“I asked Rahul sir, what do I have to do to play for the Indian team? He simply said that you have to be consistent and keep performing without taking your foot off the pedal. You have to keep pressing it and you have to keep accelerating. His words really meant a lot and even though it is a small message, it really helped me. Now it’s been 2-3 years since I have been stepping on the pedal. I’m pressing it and pushing it every now and then.”

“He also helped with a couple of technical changes, like how to bat on the pitches of New Zealand which were different and how to prepare to play in those conditions. In India, you won’t find many bouncy tracks plus the weather is different. But again, I would say the small mental things like how to build your innings matter more. He was a wall for the Indian team for more than a decade in Test Cricket. So there are a lot of things I’ve learned from him which have really helped me in first-class cricket, how to accelerate the innings in the initial phase, how to deal with the pressure when you are a captain, and how to take the team forward. These things go and stick in your mind forever because it’s Rahul Dravid; you never forget those things.”

Such expert guidance is no longer restricted to India A, however. Bawne has seen the Indian domestic scene evolve over the last 13 years into a more open, welcoming space with a greater culture of knowledge sharing than ever before.

“Earlier it all used to be different, but now everything has changed. I’ve seen my teammates going and talking to other teams’ coaches, and other teams’ players coming and talking to my coaches.  There’s no particular state-state thing anymore, like a guy from UP can go and coach the team from Assam. I think a great culture has evolved in India nowadays that people can just walk to anyone and ask about the game, and the problems they have. And again, the other person is happy and willing to speak about it to help the cricketer. Every cricketer wants to improve and evolve in the game, so the culture shift is a very good thing.” 

Despite making his debut up the order, Ankit now plies his trade largely at number five in first-class cricket and has built a reputation for rescuing his team from tough situations. The batter has grown up with a conventionally solid technique and acute reading of the game, with his ability to anchor along an innings among the best on the Indian domestic circuit. However, despite seemingly being made to bat in the top order, Bawne is more than happy to serve his team’s requirements without any selfish motives.

“I can’t see anyone else who has a front-foot stride as big as that against fast bowlers. Middles everything, bat sounds very sweet, and he gives us solidity, real solidity.”

Surendra Bhave, former Maharashtra Head Coach

“I have batted at all the numbers but I think where my team needs me, I’m there to bat. Even batting number four and five, I have good enough records for anyone to be impressed and say ‘oh, this guy has a great record.’ As a batter, you should be able to bat any number. I don’t believe in particular positions. If tomorrow, my team asked me to open, I’m ready to do that and if they asked me to bat 6, 5, 4, or anywhere, I’m ready to do that as well. As a batsman, I think you should be adjustable and flexible,” a firm Ankit remarked.

“As for first-class cricket, we had good openers for a number of years for Maharashtra so I had to bat in the middle because they needed someone who plays with good technique and good temperament; someone, who can just take the team through. Fortunately, I have kept performing at the same positions, numbers four and five, and thus haven’t even thought about changing,” he further asserted his point.

Over the years, Bawne has been a consistent performer in domestic cricket. Having now settled into his middle-order role, the right-hander enjoyed a great Ranji campaign in 2021/22, piling on 270 runs in just three games at an average of 67.40, including notching up his 20th career first-class century. However, his batting position in one-days remains dynamic, but the constant change has hardly deterred Bawne’s numbers.

Ankit had his best Vijay Hazare campaign to date recently as he led the side alongside Ruturaj Gaikwad to the final, ending as the tournament’s fourth highest-run getter with 587 in nine innings at a stunning average of 83.85. Notably, all the three batsmen above him in the charts opened for their respective teams. 

“In one-day cricket, it is totally the team’s decision where they want to place a batsman. This year because Ruturaj was there and Rahul was there, I had to bat in the middle order. I have batted at number three in the past and scored centuries there also, but you have to go as per the team’s requirement. Nothing is bigger than team success. So I had to bat number five and I didn’t even think about scoring too many runs because my only goal was to perform and help my team win. When your thinking is so clear then personal milestones stop mattering, they just follow on their own. I think much like the way Virat Kohli says he just goes and performs to try to make sure that his team ends up on the winning side and then the records just follow,” Ankit expressed.

“But when I saw the top 10 scorers in the Vijay Hazare Trophy, I was very much proud of myself that even though I batted fewer overs than the others and that too in crunch situations in the middle, I still managed to get around 600 runs which was a very good thing for me as a middle-order batsman,” he added. 

Importantly, the runs for Ankit came at a strike rate of 101.55 – a huge uptick from his career List A strike rate of 74.95. The batter was at his explosive best against Puducherry where he raced away to a sensational 184 off just 143 balls, narrowly missing out on a maiden double-century in limited-overs cricket. The 29-year-old laced his knock with 28 boundaries and four maximums, nearly batting the entirety of the innings having come out to bat in the second over itself. Ankit revealed the results were no coincidence but a result of dedicated hard work to constantly improve and take his game to new heights.

“The game has evolved a lot if you see what we used to play in 2000, 2010 and now in 2022, and I think I have evolved too with the game. Initially, when I started there was no IPL, there was not much white-ball cricket. People used to play the traditional way, but I think with time I have evolved my game very well. Even if you see this year, I batted with a strike rate of over 100 and scored very quick runs. Whenever my team needed me to, I shifted gears,” Ankit observed.

“This evolution is what helped me stay in this game for a longer time. I also started pretty early, not many associations give chances to their players when they’re 15 years old, you don’t see that nowadays. Getting a chance at 15 just helped me to mature quickly. So by the time when I was 19 and 20, I was pretty stable but again, you have to work hard for it. I know I have worked very hard for it. I have had to work really hard in the gym. I’ve worked hard on my running. I’ve worked on my technique, and I’ve gone to Chennai to play games and get that game time before the Ranji. So I know I’ve done a lot of hard work but you can’t just keep playing with that one mindset. Every year, you have to bring different things to your game whenever you go and play first-class cricket. You should look different. You should look better than the last year. “

The relentless nature of Ankit’s efforts and his dedication to the team are best highlighted by the way he prepared for the recent Vijay Hazare Trophy. As glamorous a reputation as cricket has of being laden with money, few are able to recognize the immense level of hard work that goes on behind the scenes.

“Everybody saw us playing in the final, but people don’t know hard we worked for this tournament as a team. We used to get up by five, reach the stadium by 6 AM, eat a little bit and then have a fitness session till 7 AM. Then again, we started around 7:30 after a brief break and do a full-fledged fielding session for an hour till 8:30. We then had breakfast and started again at nine with match simulations where everybody used to get a particular scenario, such as to bat 15-20 overs without getting out, and we used to finish by 5- 5:30 in the evening. We did all this for more than 10-12 days and it’s really hard, trust me. When you go back home, you just want to sleep at 7- 7:30 PM. Just for the one tournament, everybody had to do so much work and was so involved. We wanted to win so badly. It’s a really big deal and that’s how we prepare ourselves for these tournaments,” Ankit outlined.

“Out of the 12 months, our season only lasts for two but we have to prepare ourselves for 10 months without a break. We hardly get a Sunday off and have to follow a particular routine and diet. I keep playing professional games outside Maharashtra also, I go to Chennai for three months and I play there. As for the off-season, I wake up early, hit the gym, go practice and just keep improving my game. So there is hardly any scope for rest, and there is a lot of hard work behind whatever people see on television. Not only state-level cricketers but even the players who have not made it yet are working very hard. At the international and state level, we have people who can help – trainers, physios, doctors, the entire setup, but they have to figure out everything on their own. Big shout out to them that even after so much struggle, they are still working hard every day just to chase that dream. It’s a tough sport to be in,” he added.

Such determination has meant that in the past Ankit has been ever-so-close to breaking through into the Indian team on multiple occasions only to end up disappointed. Be it a chance to prove his mettle at the Under-19 World Cup in 2012 as India’s captain, until it was stripped away from him at the last moment due to a clerical error by his passport agent, or his various stints with India ‘A’. The batter had shot into the spotlight in 2017 when he had battled through a barrage of pace from the likes of Lockie Ferguson and Matt Henry in the unofficial Test series against New Zealand A, eventually emerging with a match-winning 162 in the second game. Yet, a few low scores against the England Lions saw the door being shut on him once again. Ever since, Ankit has kept on knocking with his excellent displays across formats, but to no avail.

Nevertheless, representing India is just another challenge for Ankit at the end of the day, and boy does he know how to overcome them.

“As a cricketer, you only play for the one dream which is to play for India. It doesn’t matter how many first-class, Deodhar or league games you play. You always want to play one Test or one ODI and represent your country, and it is the same with me. For that, I am giving everything that I have right now. Sometimes I feel like frustration and being negative are not going to help me because selection is not in my hands, I cannot control it.”

“My only job is to go there and perform as a professional cricketer whenever given an opportunity, and I have been doing that for more than a decade. I strongly feel that my time will come – all those performances, all that hard work, it won’t go unrecognized and things will all come together sooner or later. It will come.”

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