How Atharva Ankolekar went from adversity to U-19 stardom

Ankolekar (fifth from right, standing) was named Man of the Match at the U-19 Asia Cup final in Colombo last year Asian Cricket Council

On the night of Diwali in 2018, Sachin Tendulkar's son, Arjun, invited a few friends home. When the festivities were over, Atharva Ankolekar, a team-mate of Arjun's on Mumbai's age-group circuit, left the Tendulkar mansion and made his way to his one-bedroom house in Andheri East, a Mumbai suburb.

In that sparse home, Ankolekar, 19, is one of two breadwinners in his family of three, the other members of which are his mother, Vaidehi, and younger brother, Parth.

Vinod Ankolekar, Atharva's father, played for Jolly Cricketers club in Mumbai's Kanga League, and worked with the electricity division of the Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport Undertaking (BEST), the government-owned organisation that is best known for running public-transport buses in the city. Vaidehi gave kids in the neighbourhood after-school tuition to help the family make ends meet.

Such was Ankolekar Sr's obsession with the game that soon after their wedding, he said to Vaidehi, "You are my second wife. My first wife is cricket." On the day their first son was born, in 2000, he placed a bat next to the baby's crib in the hospital.

Vinod nicknamed the boy "Bandya" after Gol Bandya, a star of the BEST cricket team. To accomplish his dream of making Atharva a professional cricketer, Vinod began to coach him on his own, opting for night shifts at work so that he could take his son to school for practice and spend as much time with him as possible in the afternoons. "He would sometimes fall asleep when I was practising at the ground," Atharva, now 19, recalls. "He would be so tired, having worked through the night."

After Ankolekar turned seven, his father tried to get him enrolled in a cricket academy. At former India wicketkeeper Chandrakant Pandit's academy, the fee - Rs 14,000 (close to US $200) per season - was unaffordable. But Vaidehi didn't hesitate to mortgage her gold bangles and Ankolekar got in for a season.

Another season would be out of their reach, so Vinod decided it would be best to get his son enrolled in a school that had a good cricket team. But when they approached the Parle Tilak Vidya Association (PTVA), the fee there, Rs 7000 a year, was also too steep for them.

The next stop was the MiG Cricket Club, then Dilip Vengsarkar's ELF Cricket Academy, and though Ankolekar impressed coaches wherever he went, money was always a hurdle.

His father's perseverance eventually bore fruit. The PTVA academy finally agreed to take Ankolekar in for an initial payment of Rs 4000, and Vaidehi says they paid the same amount the following year. PTVA never pressured them to pay more, she says. "They are still helping us a lot."

As father and son spent increasing amounts of time playing cricket, talking about it, and watching it, Ankolekar's game improved. By mid-2010, the PTVA school agreed to take him on as a student, and the MiG club's cricket academy opened their doors too.

"His father was thrilled that now his son would play cricket for his school team but he couldn't see it," Vaidehi says. "In June, Atharva got admission and in July his father passed away [succumbing to malaria and dengue]. I told Bandya then: continue if you really want to, otherwise leave cricket and focus on studies." She says she wasn't pressuring her son but financial constraints were forcing them to make a choice.

Vinod's salary had been the family's primary source of income. Now support started pouring in from friends and Ankolekar's coaches. Someone bought him spikes, another sent money for a festival, one would take him home after practice for a meal. "They saw how much Papa struggled for me," Ankolekar says, "and when he died, they had all come home, all my coaches. They were a support system for me, and they gave me the assurance that everything was not over. They still support me."

Twelve days after her husband's death, Vaidehi went back to her tutoring, so she didn't lose students to another teacher in the neighbourhood. She and her two sons were living with Vinod's mother, his two brothers (both without an income) and his sister, but now the three of them had to move out because of the financial constraints the joint family was under. They made three moves, from one house to another, even going right across the city at one point, but finally came back to the same neighbourhood.

Vaidehi borrowed money from her sister and friends, and with the money coming in from tuitions, she began to make a fist of making ends meet for her boys and herself. His father's sudden death made Ankolekar more determined to work towards fulfilling their common dream.

After having starting out as a lower-order batsman, he began to bowl his left-arm spin more, on the advice of his coach at MiG. Ravindra Jadeja became his idol.

Ankolekar began to shine in school and club tournaments, made it through selection trials for the state's age-group teams, and impressed with both bat and ball in the Vinoo Mankad Trophy, the inter-state Under-19 tournament. In 2019 he represented India B in the U-19 Challenger Trophy, made it to Mumbai's U-23 squad, and was picked by the India U-19 selectors for the Asia Cup in Sri Lanka.

Meanwhile, BEST offered Vaidehi a permanent job as a bus conductor - one woman among 71 men at the depot where she was stationed - four years after Vinod's death, and she now had a stable primary source of income. "[The BEST job] happened finally but it was a struggle," Ankolekar says. "Even now, the struggle is not over."

Late in 2019, word spread among BEST staff that a female employee's son had made it to the India U-19 squad. In the Asia Cup, Ankolekar took 3 for 36 against Pakistan, and 4 for 16 against Afghanistan. Then came the final, against Bangladesh.

"I had gone for work as usual, and I wasn't even aware of these cricket websites or apps," Vaidehi says, smiling as she recounts the events of the day. "But everyone at my depot was following it keenly and they were more excited than me."

Banners were put up in their office and in the family's neighbourhood. Vaidehi got off work early and rushed home while following the scores live on her phone. Batting first, India made 106 in 32.4 overs.

"I told my colleagues, 'Haarne waale hain.'" [We're going to lose.]

"My house was crowded because not everyone was getting that channel in the building. All my tuition students were sitting. Nobody had eaten lunch."

Bangladesh stumbled to 34 for 4 in ten overs, and then Ankolekar struck twice in his first 14 balls as soon as he came on to bowl. Bangladesh's lower order resisted, but Ankolekar broke a relatively long seventh-wicket stand. Bangladesh fought back again to go past 100 with two wickets in hand. Six runs to win, more than 17 overs to go.

"I remembered his father then and said in my mind, 'Go, complete your dream, it's meant for you,'" Vaidehi recollects. "Then he took those last two wickets and it was like a miracle. Otherwise no chance of defending such a low total. After winning, my sister, sister-in-law, mother-in-law, everyone was crying."

Ankolekar finished with 5 for 28 from his eight overs and took home the Man-of-the-Match award.

The second wicket he took that day was of Shamim Hossain, who swung down the ground. Varun Lavande completed an excellent catch while running to his right from long-on. Lavande and his family, Vaidehi says, extended the Ankolekars a major helping hand in difficult times.

"Varun's parents used to take Atharva home between school and practice for lunch, let him rest at their place, and then drop both of them at the ground. They knew I was working, I had to take tuitions in the evening, I would have to spend money to commute and so on.

"They helped us a lot. At the beginning of every academic year, Varun's mother used to buy books for Atharva, just the way she would buy for Varun. I will never forget all this. Even now she brought a cake for Atharva to the airport when they returned from [the Asia Cup in] Sri Lanka."

Ankolekar's close friends and family packed themselves into four cars, one of them an open-roofed one, for the ride home from the airport. Someone arranged for dhols. When he finally got home, there was a DJ waiting to take the celebrations up a notch.

Ankolekar has since played one-dayers against Afghanistan at home, and a few more in South Africa in the lead-up to the U-19 World Cup there later this month. He has kept the run rate in check while also picking up wickets in every game in South Africa, including 4 for 31 in the quadrangular series final against the hosts last week. In five matches in the quadrangular, he had an economy rate of 3.30 per over and took 12 wickets at a stunning average of 10.58 on pitches that do not traditionally aid spinners.

"I thought he had the potential, he was a little raw then," India U-19 coach Paras Mhambrey says, thinking back to the day he first saw Ankolekar in early 2019 in the Challenger Trophy. "In the last one year I've seen him get better with his bowling in terms of his wicket-taking ability. He's more consistent with the lengths, and he's started to kind of understand his strength in his bowling, like what he needs to do in situations, what kind of lines and lengths to bowl."

Though his rise has been steep, Ankolekar remains practical and grounded. His brother, also a left-arm spinner, was picked in the Mumbai U-14 squad in 2019, and Ankolekar has taken on the role of chaperone. "When Paddy [Parth] got selected, I sent Bandya a list of what all needs to be bought, like three kinds of spikes, etc," Vaidehi says with pride.

Despite having made headlines in Mumbai, Ankolekar is not keen on being interviewed. He knows the road ahead of him, in cricket and outside of it, is long and bumpy. He is looking to focus on two things for now - playing for Mumbai, then India; and earning enough so his mother can stop working.

"The next level is going to be the challenge for him," Mhambrey says. "That he moves on from the U-19 level, goes into the senior league, and we want him to play for the state. It's something he's aware of but he has to get better in every department if he wants to establish himself at the first-class level. And I think he is right now going in the right direction. He doesn't want to be content with just playing at the U-19 level."

Vaidehi echoes the thought. "He believes his real achievement will be when he represents the India senior side. This is nothing. This, people won't remember much, but playing for India, everyone will remember."

For Ankolekar himself, it is about giving his mother a rest. "I need to achieve a lot, so that I can let her put her feet up. I don't want her to have to work hard anymore.

"But there is still no guarantee. It's cricket. You can be a star, you can have a downfall too. So Mummy was telling me that I should play well some more, and after that she will quit."

Quitting is something Vaidehi hasn't ever let herself do, but once Ankolekar fulfils his India dream, she might have to get used to it.