For a brief period on Friday, after a lengthy rain delay that extended more than three hours, defending champions India were put under serious pressure by New Zealand in the ICC Under 19 World Cup.
With top spot in Group A at stake (read: a chance to avoid facing red-hot West Indies), rain halted India’s serene progress with the bat. And then, with a nothing-to-lose attitude, New Zealand batsmen started off strongly to be, at one point, well in control of the run-chase.
In the end, a 10-over period in the middle of their innings turned the match completely in India’s favour. While it was not surprising to see Ravi Bishnoi get the memento after the match to make it back-to-back player of the match awards, the real architect of the turnaround for his fellow spinner: Atharva Ankolekar.
With a heavily bandaged right-arm (a possible reason for him not featuring in the first two matches), the star of India U-19’s Asia Cup triumph last year got his first game at this World Cup. He had helped India defend 106 against Bangladesh with a five-for.
And when India took the field in Bloemfontein with New Zealand needing 192 to win in 23 overs, the situation was different. The conditions were different. And the innings did not start well for Ankolekar this time around. Fielding at deep square leg, he put down an absolute sitter when opener Rhys Mariu mishit a ball from Sushant Mishra. That chance was proving to be costly as Mariu shifted gears and went on a brief rampage, smacking the Indian bowlers around the park.
As if that was not enough, when he came on to bowl his left-arm spin, Fergus Lellman welcomed him with two massive sixes off the first two balls he delivered. The Mumbaikar’s first over went for 15 runs.
At that moment, you could have forgiven Ankolekar was thinking this was just not his day. You could have forgiven for him feeling like the ground could open up beneath his feet and swallow him up.
But, Ankolekar is no stranger to fighting against the odds.
Atharva Ankolekar in Youth ODI cricket:— Sampath Bandarupalli (@SampathStats) January 24, 2020
Matches - 11
Wickets - 30
Average - 9.50
Strike Rate - 17.9
Four-fers - 2
Five-fers - 1
Ankolekar's bowling SR is best in Youth ODIs while his bowling average is 2nd best behind Mujeeb ur Rahman's 9.23. [Min: 20 wickets] #INDvNZ#U19CWC
Display of character
At that stage, the required run rate had come down from 8.34 to 7.40 runs per over, with New Zealand going at nearly 10 RPO. India desperately needed to put the brakes on the scoring rate and wickets were the best way to do it. The fielders were starting to crack, the pressure starting to show.
With captain Priyam Garg placing his trust on Ankolekar despite the expensive first over, the spinner immediately struck in the second over to make amends for the dropped catch. Seeing Mariu come down the track, he dropped the ball just short of good length and Kartik Tyagi did the rest at long off.
Between his second and third overs, Lellman continued to attack the Indian bowlers. He was, then, the danger man. And Ankolekar accounted for him as well. With the gaps open in the field on the leg side, he enticed Lellman into playing a shot across the line to a ball that was flighted wide outside the offstump. The inside edge was found, the stumps were rattled.
From this point onward, India controlled the game. The two well-set batsmen were dismissed in quick time and the young Black Caps never recovered.
After going for 15 runs in the first over, Ankolekar picked up three wickets in his next four, conceding just 13 runs to finish with figures of 3/28.
“It was good to have a game like today, to see how we handled pressure and we wanted to take opportunity, and happy with the way we reacted,” Garg said after the match.
And that pretty much summed up Ankolekar’s day. The mark of a true professional in any sport is the ability to turn things around when things are not going their way and the left-arm spinner from Mumbai showed just that on the biggest stage to guide India to the top spot of Group A.