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Feature

A Hurricane Maria survivor's road to the U-19 World Cup

Batsman Alick Athanaze wants to finish the youth World Cup and then get a degree in environmental science. He wants to help revive West Indies cricket even more

Alick Athanaze launches one  •  ICC/Getty Images

Alick Athanaze launches one  •  ICC/Getty Images

Alick Athanaze's journey as an Under-19 cricketer received a rude jolt on September 19, 2017, when he and his family faced Hurricane Maria as it battered Dominica. The next day, he was to leave for a cricket camp with Windward Islands in St Lucia. He'd just signed a developmental contract and was excited to have a first feel of being in a first-class set-up. However, as he was about to set his alarm and sleep, he heard thunder and lightning in the distance.
He didn't take it seriously initially, but knew the island was experiencing something disastrous when he saw a part of his roof fall down and one wall of his bedroom crack. Within no time, broken cutlery lay spread all over the house, bats displaced, wooden planks coming off shelves. Electricity was cut off, the cable TV network went blank and internet lines snapped. It was a category-five hurricane that brought with it wind speeds of up to 160kph. For the next one week, life came to a standstill.
It's this story he looks back on with a tinge of sadness, but also draws inspiration from as he hopes to revive West Indies' campaign at the Under-19 World Cup. After losing their opening game to New Zealand, they face a must-win against South Africa.
"It took two-three months to come back to normal," Athanaze tells ESPNcricinfo. "My bats were gone; my kits were gone. I could locate just one shoe, the other was found later somewhere on the beach. My clothes were displaced. There was no phone, so life was difficult for us on the island. But such situations teach you the value of one's life.
"It was a difficult time, but everything happens for a reason. The hurricane changed my mentality. I started looking at life differently. If it wasn't for the disaster, I wouldn't be in the frame of mind I am in right now. The hurricane gave me the confidence to face any challenge in life; that was the good thing it did."
It was around the same time that he couldn't get in touch with Cricket West Indies for over a month. The regional office in Dominica was shut and the ground in Roseau was rendered unplayable; the outfield was in a mess, the floodlights were damaged, nets torn... The Roseau airport and sea port were closed, even as they tried to open up a landing strip to allow relief teams to bring in supplies. It took a fortnight for even basic essentials to become available.
As Athanaze fought through all this with his family, he lived in the hope that selection trials for the Under-19s wouldn't be called. That cricket carried on as usual in the other parts of the Caribbean made him anxious. Fortunately for him, the trials were postponed to November.
Once there, he would go on to become the highest run-getter in the inter-camp matches and also take a bagful of wickets. He followed that up with over 300 runs in five innings at the regional Under-19 tournament. In December, he was named in West Indies' Under-19 World Cup squad.
"That made me feel better because, for the last two years, this is what I wanted to achieve," Athanaze says. "I saw how much joy our triumph in 2016, in Bangladesh, brought to the people of the Caribbean. When we came together as a group, our aim was to do what they did."
As he entered his teens, Athanaze lived in the countryside, and would occasionally play cricket with his school team. He started as an offspinner and was first picked as a bowler. In his first match, he was spotted by Sam Kirnon, a British citizen who was on holiday in Dominica.
Kirnon was a physical training instructor in the British Army for six years, and played for Glamorgan for two years and was captain of the Chingford Cricket Club in England before becoming a certified Level-3 coach. Since 2013, he has been working in Dominica - where his wife is from - scouting for talent and trying to educate young players into not giving up the game once they've shown the initial spark.
"He saw something in my batting and asked me if I had a coach," Athanaze says. "I tell him 'no, man. I'm just playing because I enjoy the game'. He gave me his card and asked me to contact him later. I later joined the academy as a 14-year-old. Since then, he has been my coach. He's a very good man."
Athanaze enjoys watching Steven Smith bat and doesn't miss out on any opportunity to watch live cricket on TV, be it the CPL or the IPL. The game he most enjoyed recently was West Indies' Headingley Test win last summer and hopes the team will be able to spring up such wins more consistently.
"Legends of West Indies cricket tell us Test cricket is best cricket," he says. "We need to get back our standards. My generation has that responsibility. We're not playing well for some reason, but if we get experience and guidance, we will do well. There is a good future."
For now, Athanaze wants to finish the Under-19 World Cup and then enroll for college once back home. The application deadlines have long gone by, a process that was already delayed because of the hurricane, but he hopes a good showing for West Indies will help ease the process. He hopes to get a degree in environmental science, if cricket allows him the time, but the game remains his priority.
"Cricket, man. Cricket. I set goals but I don't like looking too far ahead. It's not like I'm not prepared, but the hurricane has taught me to not to think about tomorrow and just enjoy the present. When it gets to a stage where it's tough to balance both, I will take a call, but for now, I can juggle both."

Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo