In September 2011, Ankit Bawne was removed from the India Under-19 squad ahead of a quadrangular tournament in Visakhapatnam. He had earlier been named captain of the side. The date of birth in his passport, it was discovered, didn't match the one in his birth certificate and the BCCI's records. It didn't fulfill the cut-off date for the 2012 U-19 World Cup.
Bawne protested that the agent who arranged for his passport had messed up the date. The selectors, not wanting to take a risk, left him out. Unmukt Chand took over the captaincy. A year later, Chand led India to the World Cup title with a century in the final.
Chand earned lavish praise from Ian Chappell, won an IPL contract and wrote a book. In a TV commercial, he sneaked into the senior India team's dressing room for a bottle of Pepsi. Confronted by MS Dhoni, Virat Kohli and Suresh Raina, and asked if he thought there was no difference between him, an U-19 player, and them, the seniors, he told them: "main abhi aap ke team mein aa sakta hoon, par aap log mere team mein kabhi nahin aa sakte (I can get into your team right now, but you people can never get into mine)."
Bawne couldn't get in either. You wonder if Bawne, watching that ad, thinks to himself, "That could have been me".
"Obviously if he [Chand] is doing all this, then… he made a hundred in the final, the Indian team won the final, so the credit has to go to him," Bawne says. "Whether I had a chance [to do that] or not, I can't keep thinking about that."
What was it like, though, when he was left out?
"It was obviously a shocking time for me, individually speaking, but it's okay," Bawne says. "Basically, my aim is to play for the senior Indian team. U-19 is obviously a good thing. It's a shortcut, but my dream is to play for the senior Indian team.
"At that time, family, coaches, players, everyone supported me a lot. But this is a big stage, if you play well in the Ranji Trophy, you will get the chance. India A opportunities will open up. And it isn't like if you are the U-19 captain you will automatically move up from there. You have to perform there. That was what was in my mind. The Ranji Trophy is there, and I have to do well there. After that, I've been averaging 60-65 in every season."
In his last three first-class seasons, Bawne has averaged 75.85, 60.30, and 77.33. Since his debut in 2007, he has scored 2616 runs in 40 first-class matches at 54.50, with eight hundreds. Chand, as an aside, has 1688 runs in 31 games at 36.69, with four hundreds.
Bawne began 2013-14 with an unbeaten 115 against South Zone on his Duleep Trophy debut and has carried that form into the Ranji Trophy, where he's scored 581 runs for Maharashtra at 64.55. His numbers, though, get a little lost amid those of his team-mates. Kedar Jadhav has scored more than a thousand runs, and Harshad Khadiwale needs 20 more to reach that mark. Even Sangram Atitkar, after his 168 in the semi-final against Bengal, has scored more runs than Bawne.
But it was interesting that Surendra Bhave, Maharashtra's coach, singled out Bawne's 89 against Bengal as the innings that set the semi-final up for the team, and raved about his defensive technique. "Look at his front-foot stride," Bhave said after the match. "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."
From the press box, Bawne's innings was remarkable for how unremarkable it looked. If you hadn't seen anyone else bat in that match, you might have thought Bawne batted comfortably against an average attack in pretty good batting conditions, and missed out on a century. That, though, wasn't the case.
On a green pitch at the Holkar stadium, Maharashtra had rolled Bengal over for 114. In reply, their batsmen had looked much more comfortable than Bengal's, but not uniformly so. Khadiwale and Chirag Khurana survived their share of plays and misses in a 78-run opening stand. Vijay Zol and Rohit Motwani, the left-hand batsmen, got trapped on the shuffle early in their respective innings. Jadhav shuffled down the pitch to the fast bowlers and struck eight fours in scoring 40. He looked good, and could have made a lot more. With that approach, he could have also made a lot less. Even Atitkar, early on, looked uncertain outside the off stump and saw a few edges scream away to the third-man boundary.
None of them, in the early parts of their innings, gave you the feeling you could open a book, read two pages, and confidently look up to see them still at the crease. You could have done that with Bawne.
It might have appeared straight out of a manual, but Bawne's technique doesn't owe all that much to formal coaching. Growing up, he says, he didn't have a coach. When he played for Maharashtra's U-15s, after playing for Aurangabad in the MCA Invitational U-15 league where he made "11 hundreds in 12 innings" and helped them reach the final, he came under Bhave for the first time. Apart from that, he says he watched TV (Rahul Dravid is his favourite batsman) and taught himself how to bat.
"I haven't had any personal coach," Bawne says. "Whatever I've learned is from TV, from watching matches, and from state camps. You get the chance to play with experienced players, I've attended a lot of camps at the NCA, matches are coming on TV continuously, so I've learned small-small things."
It's apparent that Bawne learned a lot more than just technique, as he talks you through his innings of 89 against Bengal. When Atitkar walked in to join him, Maharashtra were five down and only 50 ahead. Bawne, by then, had sized up the conditions, and communicated to his partner exactly how he needed to play.
"On that wicket, you weren't going to get out to the bouncer, because the bouncer wasn't coming through quickly," Bawne says. "Secondly, if the ball seams in off the wicket, you have to cover the pads so that you don't get lbw or bowled. Against the [second] new ball, if it swung, you could get caught in the slips, which was how I got out. It was just a question of playing out four-five overs against the new ball, and against the rest just cover your stumps and play the line. Then there was no chance you'll get out. If you are that strong, mentally.
"I told Sangram that, and I was telling him continuously, 'Look, our lead is only 100, and from here, rather than get out and bat again, it was better if we batted just once, and put the opposition under pressure'. We kept playing, the lead went from 100 to 200, then I got out, and after that the wicket eased out so much that batting with a lead of 50 and batting with a lead of 200 were entirely different. If he had come in with a lead of 50, Anupam [Sanklecha, who made 52] couldn't have played so freely. Those guys wouldn't have given the ball to the legspinner. After the lead was 200, they would have thought, 'okay, the lead is now 200', and gave him the ball, and Anupam batted freely, and the game opened up. They gave us a target of 8. If we had taken a lead of 150, we might have got a target of 200 and anything could have happened."
As it turned out, Bawne fell 11 short of a hundred. It took more than just reading the scorecard to know how big a role he had played in Maharashtra's win. Something similar happened in the quarter-final against Mumbai as well.
That win will most likely go down as one created by the fast bowlers, who bundled Mumbai out for 129 in the second innings, and finished off by Zol and Jadhav, who remained not out on 91 and 120 respectively as Maharashtra raced to their target of 252 with eight wickets in hand.
Bawne's first-innings 84, however, was just as important. He came in with Maharashtra 24 for 3 replying to 402, survived a couple of early chances, and counterattacked alongside Jadhav in a 115-run fourth-wicket partnership.
"At that stage, when I went in, there were four slips and a gully, a leg slip," Bawne says. "So I decided, these guys are attacking us. In this situation, rather than just survive, why not attack them? I don't play like that normally. But at that time, I did what was necessary for my team. I started a counterattack, and from there, the game opened up. Suddenly 20 for 3 had become 145 for 3.
"In that way, what I did in that innings was, I showed how Maharashtra had to play through the rest of that game to win that game. We weren't going to play like underdogs. We were going to play with aggression."
Still, Bawne "only" made 84. In this Ranji season, he has one century and five half-centuries. Last season, when Maharashtra were in the top rung of the tournament, he scored six fifties before getting that elusive century in his team's final match of the season. Five of those fifties came in successive innings, some at venues as challenging to batsmen as Lahli and the Roshanara Club in Delhi, but they were still fifties. Batting at No.5, Bawne says, has restricted his chance of getting big hundreds. But he isn't complaining about it.
"If you see that match in Roshanara also, even when I had made fifty I was batting with the last few batsmen," he says. "The opportunity wasn't there for me to go make double-hundreds and hundreds. I try to see, in the role I'm given, how best I can help my team succeed.
"I don't mind any number. In Duleep Trophy, I got to bat at three and I scored a century. Last year, last innings, I got to bat at three and got a century then too. Whatever the team's requirement is, you have to bat according to that."