After fighting his way up the cricketing ladder in Hong Kong only to hit a dead end because of lack of exposure and financial viability, Anshuman Rath, who was their captain until recently, has put a temporary hold on his international career to move back to India, the country his family hails from. He hopes to now qualify as a local and "one day play Test cricket."
Having made himself unavailable for Hong Kong's T20 World Cup Qualifiers campaign in October, Rath, 21, is set to move to Mumbai, a city he will live and train in, as he looks to break through into India's first-class system. Having held talks with a number of associations through his agent and father, who hails from Bhubaneswar, Rath has his eyes trained on Vidarbha, the two-time Ranji Trophy champions.
"When the Indian national anthem was played, I got goosebumps and was humming to the tune even though we were playing against them. That moment I thought maybe I could potentially play for them in the future."
Rath on playing India at the Asia Cup
Over the past few weeks, he has held talks with Prashant Vaidya, the VCA's Director of Cricket, and while no formal agreement has been reached yet, Rath is hopeful of completing the paperwork soon. However, just merely holding an Indian passport won't guarantee an immediate entry into India's domestic system. Rath will have to serve a one-year cooling-off period before becoming eligible in October 2020. At the same time, his moving away from Hong Kong for good and his Indian citizenship means he can enter the IPL auction as a local uncapped player. For the moment, though, he is set to feature in club cricket in Nagpur.
"The VCA has spoken to Saba Karim (BCCI's general manager) about my road map, and all indications are that they are the team I'm most likely to turn up for, provided I put in the hard yards in club cricket and show them performances that will help my selection," Rath told ESPNcricinfo. "They have been very professional. They have won the Ranji Trophy for two years in a row now, and they have a credible reputation.
"The amount of talent there is in India, it's easy for state sides to overlook me, but the VCA have been very transparent and supportive. Their message is: 'The door is open', but I have to do whatever I can to put myself up for selection. I'm not going to be put on a pedestal. At the end of the day, if you're scoring runs, you will be picked. Hopefully, I can do that. They've kept me in the loop with everything, and about the club system there. The facilities are top notch and I'm looking forward to it."
The India move is the latest chapter of what Rath calls a "nomadic" career. As a 14-year old, he moved from Hong Kong, where his family was based, to the UK and went to the famous Harrow School. As a teenager, he emerged as one of the most promising pathway cricketers alongside current England stars like Sam Curran and Ollie Pope at Middlesex. However, "complex visa rules" that don't allow players from Associate countries to feature as full-time professionals left him with no option but to return to Hong Kong after putting his college degree on hold.
"It's been brewing for a while now," he said. "Being in the English system and having grown up there, you understand simply how different the Associate system is. My dream is to play Test cricket and unfortunately Associate cricket doesn't provide that platform. Mark Chapman is a prime example. He used Associate cricket as a benchmark to play a higher level of cricket in New Zealand. The opportunities are rare, it's not financially viable playing in Hong Kong. I don't want to have three-four years here and then move away. I'm looking at the next 10-15 year horizon, and for that, the India move is the best way forward."
Rath had a quick chat with Simon Cook, the former Hong Kong coach who had a decade-and-a-half long career with Middlesex. It merely reinforced the decision he had already made. "Simon Cook knew of my ambitions from when I was playing in England," Rath says. "I knew this was likely to happen one day, so it's a bittersweet feeling for me, even though I'm excited about going to India. The guys at Hong Kong Cricket have been extremely cooperative about it and understand the choice I've made."
At this time last year, Rath nearly orchestrated a mighty upset against the Rohit Sharma-led India at the Asia Cup. He put on a 174-run opening stand with Nizakat Khan to set the tone for a chase of 286; Hong Kong eventually fell short by 26 runs. Twelve months on, he looks back at that game with a lot of fondness. Incidentally, that was his last official ODI for Hong Kong, for whom he finishes with an average of 51.75 in 18 ODIs.
"Vidarbha's message is: 'the door is open', but I've to do whatever I can to put myself up for selection. I'm not going to be put on a pedestal. End of the day, if you're scoring runs, you will be picked"
Rath on his next move
Hong Kong have endured a bumpy road since that memorable Asia Cup outing, finishing last in WCL Division 2 in Namibia earlier in the year, where Rath topped the run charts. This relegated them to the third tier of the ICC's 50-over competition for Associates, with the side having already lost its ODI status in 2018. Partly, Rath's decision also stemmed from the ICC's decision to reduce the World Cup to a 10-team show. With things unlikely to change for 2023, it's a decision he says he had to make "sooner than later."
"When I wasn't allowed to play in England, I had to find a new base to develop my game and progress," he says. "If you told me a year ago that I'd be in the Indian system, it's not like I would've said 'you're joking' because I had to decide at some point. In that game against India, when the Indian national anthem was played, I got goosebumps and was humming to the tune even though we were playing against them. That moment was when I had the realization that I could potentially play for them in the future. I want to give myself every opportunity to do so. There are no guarantees, but at least I know the ball is in my court and there is a structure and a pathway for me to make it happen."
Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo