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Hardened by tough choices, Anshuman Rath ready for captaincy challenge

Anshuman Rath walks off unbeaten on 143 off 137 balls for his maiden ODI century Peter Della Penna

Last month, during a preparatory tour in Malaysia ahead of the Asia Cup Qualifiers, Anshuman Rath heard a knock on his door late at night. It was Babar Hayat, Hong Kong's batting lynchpin, who said he wanted to give up captaincy. The team needed a new leader, and Hayat wanted to convey the news to his vice-captain.

Rath, all of 20, had been long earmarked for a leadership role, and had taken over the vice-captaincy from Aizaz Khan in September 2017. He accepted the challenge immediately, and left his first imprint as captain when he led Hong Kong to a thrilling win over UAE in the final of the Asia Cup Qualifiers to seal a place in the tournament proper.

The spontaneity of the decision surprised many in Hong Kong, but for Rath it was a challenge he simply couldn't let go of, especially since he had shelved an economics degree in the UK after being told he had to choose between studies and cricket because of visa restrictions.

"Whenever I make a decision, I weigh the negatives with the positives," Rath tells ESPNcricinfo. "This [putting his degree on hold] was a big one, as big as moving to England and doing boarding school at 14. Continuing university there when my future was unclear would've been a wrong step. I wouldn't have been able to manage time. I'd have had to pay for the full year at college, would I have been able to attend? I didn't think so."

Rath moved to the UK for boarding school - the famous Harrow School - as a 14-year-old in 2011 and emerged as one of the most promising pathway cricketers alongside future England players Sam Curran and Ollie Pope. He was a regular in Middlesex's second XI and consistently made runs for four seasons, doing so well that Angus Fraser, the director of cricket at the county, spoke to to the ECB last year and presented a case for Rath to be considered for the first XI. However, the ECB's restrictions on players from Associate countries meant the plan didn't materialise.

"I was at university and I'd just finished a second-team game for Middlesex. I'd just hit 140 not out against Kent, and I got called in to the office next day at Lord's," Rath remembers. "Throughout the entire winter, I had discussions with Angus Fraser about contracts. They felt I was first XI material and talks were going forward in the summer of 2017. Then I had a busy winter with Hong Kong. While he said there were a few visa discrepancies, they were confident of sorting it out.

"Then I get a call the day after the Kent game. I go into the office and I sit down, I'm fairly excited because in my mind I'm thinking 'This is where I put pen and paper down and everything's going to be official. I love playing for Middlesex and everything's going to be good.' But Gus (Fraser) sat me down and said they can't sign me for visa reasons. I can't remember what he said after that, because everything was a blur.

"I went back to university and sat still for two hours thinking if it really happened. Then I played club cricket the next day, but again I got a call from Angus Fraser telling me I can't play club cricket too. It was a tough pill to swallow, but I can't thank Middlesex enough for the effort they put in to try and fix it. They backed me 100% through all this. They still want to sign me, but unfortunately the way Brexit and the immigration office operate, I don't think it is likely to happen, but you never know. Maybe the ECB will relax their rules, but for now, I'm just holding my breath."

Rath thought about it for a while, met his professors to tell them he was putting his degree on hold, and returned to England with a sportsperson's visa to play for the Brondesbury Cricket Club, a deal facilitated by Fraser who wasn't going to give up. "I spoke to Angus over the winter, and he wanted to me to come over and play club cricket for one of the Middlesex premier league clubs, which meant I had to change my visa status," Rath says. "Sportsman visa doesn't entitle me to play county cricket because of the Associate tag, but it enables me to play club cricket, so I gave up my rights as a student."

Giving up those rights wasn't easy. Rath had to work hard to convince his parents. "There were some heated discussions, I'm not going to lie," he says. "They acknowledge that when I was younger, academics and cricket was always together. When I started to go on more tours with Hong Kong, and started doing well, academics had to take a back seat.

"They realised it wasn't practical to miss so much university by going on these tours and just write exams, it's near to impossible. Their mentality of being 'typical Indian parents', they didn't see a reason at first, but came around to it once they saw the real picture. We concluded at the end of the day that if my future is not in the UK, my academics will have to go where my cricket goes. I've put a little bookmark on my academics for now, and see where cricket takes me over the next few years and see where I go."

Rath's decision to concentrate on cricket seemed vindicated when he impressed for Galaxy Gladiators Lantau during the Hong Kong T20 Blitz earlier this year. It was there that he caught the eye of his team-mate Kumar Sangakkara. An endorsement from a legend drove him to become even better. While he wasn't playing club cricket in the UK, he was training in Hong Kong with the senior team and head coach Simon Cook. In the little window he had to work on his game while matches weren't on, he went to India to train at the Dav Whatmore Academy in Chennai.

It's these sacrifices Rath hopes will eventually pay off, even though he's still hopeful of finishing his degree. "I hope that if circumstances have put a hindrance on my degree because of uncertainty where I'm going to end up, once I'm more stable, I'll get back to university," he says. "I've got a five-year window where I can carry my university credits. Unfortunately the way the immigration system works, I can't play cricket in the UK and study at the same time. I can't do both."

For now, his immediate goal is to compete and live the dream at the Asia Cup. As a child, he was fascinated watching India-Pakistan matches in Hong Kong, where his father had to pay big money to subscribe to the cricket channel. Now he has an opportunity to play against the same teams, not just as an international cricketer, but also as captain of his team. And when he steps onto the field to play India, his community in Bhubaneswar's Gautam Nagar will root for their boy in red.