Let me begin this piece with the story of Eklavya from Mahabharata. Son of a lower-class hunting tribe’s chief, Eklavya wanted to become an archer. So he went to Dronacharya, a master of advanced military arts and a teacher of the royal family, and requested him to teach him archery. Bound by the law of the land, Dronacharya could not accept him as student. A disheartened Eklavya, who had already accepted Dronacharya as his master in his heart, went home and made a statue of his Guru and started practicing in front of it.
Over years, with sheer dedication, patience, sincerity and commitment, Eklavya became an able archer without ever learning from his Guru in person. His story has stayed with us over the generations and has come to define exemplary discipleship. People do not prefer to take the path less-trodden the way once adopted by Eklavya, but there are still some as passionate and zealous as him. Consider, for example, Ankit Bawne, who plays for Maharashtra and will be playing for Delhi Daredevils in IPL season 10.
Bawne never got any professional coaching till he broke into the Maharashtra Under-15s. A few months later, with virtually no personal training, he made his First-Class debut at 15. He learnt the art of batting by watching Rahul Dravid, his Dronacharya, on television. Today, at 24, he is already a domestic veteran with over 4,500 runs and a First-Class average of over 52. From being a prodigious talent to almost captaining the World Cup winning Under-19 team to making to India A recently, Bawne has come a long way. But in his own words, he still has miles to go.
Born in Paithan, about 50 km away from Aurangabad, Maharashtra, Bawne picked up cricket just as any other Indian child. He was 9 when he started playing the game in his colony. He first played in school, then for his school; the passion for cricket reached a level where he started playing wherever and whenever he got a chance — after school, before tuitions, after tuitions; basically, all the time.
At whichever level he played, he played with sincerity and dedication. In 2005, when he was just 12, Bawne went to Agra to represent Maharashtra School team in the Under-16 Nationals. His father, who had reserved the return tickets after the final, was also accompanying him. As it turned out, Maharashtra lost in the quarters and the father-son duo had two days at their disposal. So when his father decided to visit nearby places, Ankit refused and forced them return to Aurangabad the same day: he wanted to play in an inter-school Gadiya Trophy match.
Before he could realise, Bawne was picked for the Maharashtra Under-15 squad — his first big break — following a Bradmanesque-run in an invitational tournament. It was at this point that he realised he could make it big in cricket.
“Before I was picked for the team, I played an invitational tournament in Maharashtra where I scored 11 hundreds in 12 innings, missing out only in the final. That is when I realised I have some potential in me and can do well even at the higher level. When I joined the camp, even Surendra Bhave-Sir and Ajay Shirke-Sir backed me and my potential, which was a big thing,” Bawne told CricketCountry in an exclusive chat.
“I do not have the fear of getting out now, after so many runs under my belt in past few seasons. I just go out and express myself freely. I never take any pressure; never think about how good the opposition bowlers are. These things do not bother me.”
As they say in Hindi, ‘poot ke paanv paalne mein dikh jaate hain’ [a child shows his colours in the beginning]. It held true for Bawne, who had bigger things in store: “I joined the state Under-15 team and scored 1,000 runs in state season. Our team won the Polly Umrigar Trophy under my captaincy. The selectors saw something in me and I was picked for the Ranji Trophy when I was 15.”
Bawne made his First-Class debut 8 days after his 15th birthday, against Karnataka in the 2007-08 Ranji Trophy, at Ratnagiri. Opening batting, he scored 27 and 0. This was a new phase in his life; early days when he started to work under the coaches of a state team — a first for him: “I never had a personal coach. In fact, the first ever coaching that I ever received was when I made it to the Maharashtra Under-15 camp.”
But how did he learn the nuances of batting? The answer was as rare as hen’s teeth. “Whatever cricket I learned from the beginning: the technique as well as the mental aspect of the game, was through watching TV. I used to see international cricketers — Rahul Dravid in particular — play on TV and learn. Watching Dravid play in tough English conditions was a great learning curve.”
In the era where cricket has multiple formats, the policy of picking horses for courses is not just applicable to selecting players: it is also relevant while picking idols. Bawne, too, had different role models for the three formats.
“For One-Day cricket I used to follow MS Dhoni’s game: how he would build his innings, when would he take risks, rotate strike, farm the strike when batting with tail-enders, selection of shots et al. These things helped me improve my game.”
“In T20 cricket I follow Virat Kohli’s game: we both play at the top order for our respective teams. Scoring four hundreds in an IPL season is not a joke, and watching him score them on TV is a learning experience for me.”
Not bad role models at all to follow.
In next four seasons, Bawne made significant progress and went on to establish himself as an important player for Maharashtra. Already four seasons-old at domestic circuit before turning 19, Bawne grew in reputation and was a part of India Under-19. He was touted as the one for future. However, life is never a bed of roses, and Bawne learned it the hard way.
He was dropped from the India under-19 squad ahead of a quadrangular tournament in Visakhapatnam after discrepancies were found in his date of birth on his passport and the one on his birth certificate and BCCI records. Further, he failed to meet the cut-off date for the 2012 Under-19 World Cup and was omitted from the squad. He was originally named captain for the quadrangular tournament. He could have well been named as the captain for the World Cup. But as fate would have it, Unmukt Chand was named captain and the team went on to win the tournament under his captaincy.
Delhi lad Unmukt then bagged an IPL contract with the Daredevils and a few commercials after that win. For 19-year-old Bawne, who was forced to see what could have been from the sidelines, it was too much to bear. The ignominy of the age goof-up was too much for a youngster.
But Bawne refused to give up: “Luckily, I had a Ranji Trophy season straightaway after that. Shirke Sir, parents, association members all helped me overcome. I was the top-scorer for Maharashtra in that Ranji season, which means a lot to me because I have always believed playing Ranji is the next biggest thing after playing for India.”
He added: “Whatever I am is because of cricket. Once again it was cricket which helped me overcome it. [Playing] Under-19 World Cup for India would have obviously been huge, but the dream was always to play for the senior Indian team. I agree with the form which I was in ahead of that tournament; I could have scored big and perhaps got a break into the national team straightaway. Nevertheless, I had full confidence in my abilities. I knew the road had become a bit tougher for me, but I was ready for the grind.”
Today, at 24, Bawne is already a veteran at domestic cricket. He is nearing 5,000 runs in First-Class cricket at an average beyond 52. In last six seasons he has never averaged below 45 in Ranji Trophy.
Bawne performance in last five Ranji seasons
Though he has remained consistent over this time, the current season has been a fulfilling one for Bawne. He scored his maiden First-Class double ton this year, was involved in the second-highest partnership (of 594) in First-Class history with Swapnil Gugale, got his maiden India A call-up as well as an IPL deal. When I asked him what different has he done this season, Bawne credited the extra amount of hard work as the reason for his success: “Basically I have worked really hard this season. If I compare [2016-17] to the previous six seasons, I have worked a lot on fitness and physical strength, because I wanted to prove a point in T20s as well.”
Unfortunately, his returns in List A and T20s have not been as good as his First-Class record. But fortunately, he realises that: “If we talk about Ranji Trophy, I’ve been doing well for past 6-7 seasons. With the experience I have now, playing Ranji Trophy was not that tough but I wanted to prove a point in white-ball cricket. If you have seen me in recent times, I have worked really hard on my fitness and achieved something which very few players have. All the work on the fitness front has been for the game, since I wanted to improve my batting, my shots, improvise my game. Luckily I have done well in T20 this year and white-ball cricket in general for past 2-3 years.”
Indeed, he did have a stellar Syed Mushtaq Ali Inter-State Tournament this year. In the West Zone games he scored 235 runs in 4 matches at a whopping 78.33 and a strike rate just shy of 130. He also hit 3 fifties in 4 games, something which helped him find a place in West Zone squad for the Zonal rounds as well as bag his maiden IPL deal with Delhi Daredevils (DD).
Though he has had a near-perfect season, he still regrets not getting to the 1,000-run mark in the Ranji Trophy. For that, he believes, he needs 10 to 11 games a season: “I want to get 1,000 runs in a Ranji season. I will have a realistic chance of getting there when Maharashtra makes it to knockouts, because playing 10 to 11 matches gives you that chance of getting there. To get there in 8 matches you need all flat decks. But every season, no matter how good form you are in, there are 2 or 3 tricky games that come your way.”
Since Bawne started playing for Maharashtra, they did make it to the final once, in 2013-14. So what went wrong there, as he had a chance to score 1,000 runs? Bawne explained, “When we made it to the final in 2013-14 I was out of form in the first few games. I scored heavily in the knockouts, but my first few games did not fetch me runs. I had scored hardly 100 runs in first 5 games and was low on confidence. The next few games were crucial, starting with the one against Himachal. Big stages always inspire me. They push me to do well. I got 138* against them. Then, against Mumbai in the quarter-final, with the team in a spot of bother, I scored 80-odd runs [84 off 113 balls, actually]. I have that faith in my ability that I can perform better than others in crunch situations.”
His teammates Kedar Jadhav and Harshad Khadiwale got to 1,000-run landmark that year. That too, according to Bawne, was a reason behind him not getting there: “They used to bat for longer durations. By the time my chance would come, 500-plus runs were already on the board. I did not feel motivated enough to get runs. Once the knockouts arrived, we faced big teams and my chance to bat came early. There, I scored runs.”
2016-17, as I have mentioned above, has been a fulfilling one for Bawne. It has also taken him closer to realising his dream of playing for the Indian team. Being picked for India A to play Australia in the tour match, Bawne got first-hand experience of what it means to play against the best. And now, he hopes the day when he gets to play for India is not that far away; and when it comes, he will be ready for it: “You never know when the opportunity arises. We play so many Tests, cricket in general, and injuries can occur anytime. So as a player I need to be ready to be into contention.
“I know I will get my chances one day and will play for India. And when that day comes, I will have bulk of experience under my belt which will help me gel-up in that set up quickly. Even during my maiden India A game against Australia, though I only got 25 runs, my experience helped me approach the game in the right way, without any undue pressure.”
Bawne is right when he says that he will be ready for the call-up, when it comes, for he already has 10 First-Class seasons under his belt. He takes inspiration from the likes of Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane, who came into the international scene after grinding it out for six First-Class seasons and scoring truckloads of runs. Just like them, he wants to dominate at international level from the word go.
He added: “I know I have to play for India one day. When that happens, I will have to face the likes of James Anderson and other premier bowlers. To get myself battle-ready for the international level, I know I have to dominate the bowlers at domestic cricket and score runs at an average of at least 50. If you look at the First-Class averages of Indian top-order batsmen, all average over 50. So, that is what I also look to achieve because anything less than that is average; and selectors don’t pick average players. Look at Pujara and Rahane. They played for India after playing plenty of First-Class cricket. It helped them. It is something I also hope to do when my turn comes.”
But what has the decade-long grind taught him? “I do not have the fear of getting out now, after so many runs under my belt in past few seasons. I just go out and express myself freely. I never take any pressure; never think about how good the opposition bowlers are. These things do not bother me. I actually never let anything affect my game.”
Keeping things simple has been his mantra while playing: “I have always enjoyed my game. I just go and enjoy batting and fielding. I enjoy my game. If you complicate things, you invite stress. I never think who is watching my game, what selectors, coach or captain think of it etc. I just keep things simple: go out, enjoy your batting, give 100 per cent and repeat the same process even if you fail.”
“I’ll be under Dravid (at DD in IPL 10), whom I’ve grown up watching on TV and have learned my game from. I want to nail the opportunities I get and play impact innings for my side.”
Bawne, who started his career as an opener, has since played at all positions from Nos. 1 to 7. In fact, he is ready to bat at any position for the Indian team when the need arises in future. “For me, a batting number doesn’t mean anything. Being a batsman, I should be ready to play at any position from 1 to 7. I have batted everywhere in Ranji Trophy. If the need comes, I can bat at any order for Team India.”
Are the selectors listening?
Talking about selectors, he got a major boost during the inter-state matches of the recently-concluded Syed Mushtaq Ali Tournament, where he got 235 runs from 4 games. During one of the matches, Chief of Selectors MSK Prasad was present at the ground. He had words of praise reserved for Bawne, whom he met after the match: “MSK Prasad-Sir met me during the Syed Mushtaq Ali T20 Trophy this year. I scored 71 against Saurashtra and guided team to 165 after early losses. He called me later in the cabin and told me he was impressed with my game, the way I batted responsibly and read the game well. He told me not to get disappointed for not getting a chance so far and assured I’m on selectors’ radar and should take inspiration from Michael Hussey, who struggled to break through into international cricket but when he got his chances, he dominated the scene like no one else.”
They say nothing succeeds like success, and Bawne is a firm believer in this adage. He believes that the fact that Maharashtra have started winning consistently is helping the side as well as players grow. “Our team have won 5 out of 6 games in Vijay Hazare Trophy recently. There is a positive environment and all the players play freely. It helps the players grow.”
Besides, there’s the Kedar Jadhav factor as well. India’s latest ODI star, who is also Maharashtra’s limited-overs skipper, has added brand-value to the team ever since he broke into the national team. Bawne acknowledges this: “Obviously, it helps when you have someone like him around. His success assures us of being on the right path. Now I know I can also score 1,000-odd runs and make it to the Indian team some day. After returning from the Indian team, Kedar tries to implement Anil Kumble and Kohli’s practices in our setup. The good thing is we are winning. When you win, your performance gets noticed.”
On a personal note, he told how Kedar has given him the pep talks, adding he is on the right path: “He asks me to work on how I can get my game one level up every day, how I can improve every day.”
However, while Kedar is perceived as a limited-overs specialist, Bawne wants to play across formats. Having a fantastic record in four- and five-day cricket, he has made special efforts to get better at white-ball cricket, and the results have followed.
Bawne gives credit to his parents for whatever he has achieved thus far: “They have done a lot for me since the beginning. It is never easy for parents to allow their only child to pursue a career in sports. In our country, even today, middle-class families want their kids to study well and find a stable job. But my parents were very supportive from the beginning. I have been staying away from home for last so many years — 15, to be precise. In fact, I have been on the road for last four months. I have not gone home over this period. It is really commendable the way they manage things without me. Without their support, I’m nothing.”
Of course, he also added that the contribution of Bhave-Sir, Shirke-Sir and the entire support staff at Maharashtra team has been immense in his development.
Life comes full circle
For last 9 seasons, Bawne has witnessed IPL from the other side of the fence. This time though, he will be a part of the DD squad, with Dravid — his Dronacharya — as mentor. Life, it seems, has come full circle for him: “I’ll be under Dravid, whom I’ve grown up watching on TV and have learned my game from. I want to nail the opportunities I get and play impact innings for my side. Most importantly, I plan to use the IPL experience to improve my First-Class game. It is going to be huge. The coming 45 days can completely change my life as a cricketer.”
At DD, Bawne will be sharing the dressing room with his friend Shreyas Iyer, who many also perceive as his competitor. Both play aggressive brand of cricket, are young and prospective candidates for a Team India berth in future. But Bawne does not look at it as competition. In fact, he does not believe in competition at all “I personally do not think about competition. Shreyas is a dear friend on and off the field. My competition is with myself.”
A fitness freak, for whom working out at gym is a way of life, Bawne loves movies and his Playstation in his free time, if any.
“Work hard; play hard; stay around positive people,” remains his mantra.