What comes to your mind when you hear 15 November 1989? The picture of a kid walking to the ground for the first time for his country against the intimidating crowd in Karachi or that of a pace bowler, responding to the name of Waqar Younis, streaming in to bowl some devastating balls on debut?
It was the day on which two of the all-time greats made their first international appearance. Sachin Tendulkar and Waqar Younis are, of course, not the names that need any introduction but quite gently, another guy from Mumbai had also slipped under the radar and fought tooth and nail for the next eight years - someone who was once considered as the "longest-serving squad man" of Indian cricket, perhaps? Salil Ankola’s name doesn’t ring a bell that easily but beyond the platitude of an international cricketer, Ankola lived a life - king size.
After a career-ending operation on his bone, he had to bow out from the cricket world in the late 1990s and acted in the 2000 Hindi film Kurukshetra where he played the role of a cop accompanying his senior officer played by Sanjay Dutt in a Mahesh Manjrekar directorial. In some way or other, it was a path he had to take so as to make ends meet in life - the travesty of a professional sportsman who didn’t have the luck on his side to don the Indian colours long enough. For Ankola, the time he played for the Indian team was the apogee of his career.
“Life has been good and bad, like how usually everyone’s life is, ups and downs are there in life all the time. But, never thought of becoming an actor which I did. Never thought of getting into the food business, which I did. So, I mean, there is just one life you know. So it’s a good thing that I got to experience a lot of flavours in life, " Ankola tells in an exclusive chat with SportsCafe.
When Ankola says this, it doesn’t come up as a PR-moderated Cricketer-turned-Bollywood star speaking professional cliches, rather an earnest attempt before unlocking what had made him so confident in his life and career despite the immeasurable amount of setbacks. The debut match turned out to be his only Test match, although he was called to the ODI team during 1993, which eventually led to him being a part of the 1996 Cricket World Cup. Sudden development of bone tumour in his left shin bone (Osteoid Osteoma) was the last nail in the coffin as Ankola couldn’t run for two years, making it the sad epilogue, for what it was worth.
“The diagnosis went bad, the operation went bad, treatment post the operation also went bad. So I could not even walk properly or run properly, in fact, I could not run for the next two and a half years,” Ankola said, reminiscing about some of the darkest days as a cricketer.
“There were too many complications after the operation and that was one period when I never thought about myself but to play cricket for my country. I never say playing cricket for India, I always say playing cricket for my country and even now the country holds a very dear place in my heart. So that was one of the most traumatic things ever in my life, and there is a regret that I wish I could still have continued because I had six to seven years of play left in me.”
If leaving the sport was one of the hardest things he had to do, then searching for another career alternative was even harder. Tall, good-looking and athletic, Ankola had few options to join Bollywood in 1996, an offer he had rejected then, but the quirk of fate saw him choosing acting as a professional career. Sangeeth Sivan, one of the most reputed names in the Malayalam movie industry, gave him a role in his third Hindi film Chura Liyaa Hai Tumne, and then Ankola found a purpose to his life.
“I remember in ’96 when I was playing the World Cup, I was offered a couple of movies which I refused obviously because I didn’t have any aspiration to go towards movies. But when I had to give up the game, at that time we were going through a lot of financial problems because I was married and the money from the South Africa tour was taking too long to come, I had to undergo an operation and there was no money in the house. I requested the Board and the board also said it is going to take a long time because the sponsors have to pay them and then they’ll pay me.
“So it was kind of a cycle, you know, There is a saying that there is always a calm after the storm. So that’s what happened and during that time, again I was offered something on the TV and I figured ‘why not’. So I took it as a bread and butter kind of thing for me, I had a family to support, I had two kids and a wife, my father had retired so I had to support the house. It was a new thing for me, I trained for it and now it’s been what, 20 years of my acting career. So it’s been good all this while.”
Everything was going so good for him but life brought him down once again. Some problems in private life, made him reach to the bottle, which subsequently became a drinking problem.
“Cricket had been a little bit hard on me. And it’s like one day you wake up and suddenly everything is just taken away from you, how would a person feel? So naturally I felt bad and I was a little bit frustrated. Then in ’97 when the Indian team was supposed to tour the West Indies, there was no Srinath, there was no Venkatesh Prasad, Kapil Dev was long gone. I had a chance of being the mainstay of the Indian cricket team and spearhead bowling attack but here I was, as destiny would have it, with a bone tumour.
It was the one time in my life when I felt like, “Why me?” You know you tend to get a little frustrated at the whole thing and after that my operation went wrong, I couldn’t run and I couldn’t walk.
Salil Ankola to SportsCafe
“It was the one time in my life when I felt like, “Why me?” You know you tend to get a little frustrated at the whole thing and after that my operation went wrong, I couldn’t run and I couldn’t walk. I didn’t know what to do, I had to take up a career just to support my family which I knew nothing about which I had never thought about. Not even my ancestors would have done anything in acting, I had no connection with the stage whatsoever. And it was a totally different jump from sports to dramatics which I didn’t really want to take up, but I had to take up.
“Just to ease up the pain and forget, I let go with the booze. And it started very mildly; you know you feel eased off once you have had four to five drinks so it started that way. But then it grew and became a bigger problem later. I didn’t want to become an alcoholic but I did become an alcoholic and that’s the way it went.”
It was not easy living up to that tag but then again, in the past, cricketers were not a robot machine. They had time to play a benefit match here and there to support the former cricketers who had fallen behind the wayside. To support Ankola and former India wicket-keeper Sameer Dighe, Sachin Tendulkar had organised a benefit match at the Andheri Sports Complex in Mumbai between Sachin Tendulkar’s XI & Sourav Ganguly’s XI, in which the former beat the latter by 8 wickets.
Apart from Tendulkar and Ganguly, the exhibition match had big names like Gautam Gambhir, Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman, Anil Kumble in which India’s then captain MS Dhoni surprisingly came at the venue and played in Sachin’s team to return with the man of the match trophy as well.
“There were a few cricketers I spoke to because at that time I was going through a very rough phase in my life but they point blank refused me on my face, I don’t want to name them, that is their problem. But MSD, I did not speak to him as I really could not reach out to him. Sachin organized that match and of course, MSD knew about it.
I distinctly remember that on the day of the match, MS Dhoni called me up on my cell and said, ‘Mai aa raha hu. Aadhe ghante me pahunch raha hu mai
Ankola on MS Dhoni's sweet gesture
“I was trying to get in touch with him but I spoke to Sanjay, his manager. So just a day prior I got to know his number, I spoke to him, I remember only vaguely but I distinctly remember that on the day of the match, he just called me up on my cell and said, ‘Mai aa raha hu. Aadhe ghante me pahunch raha hu mai [I am coming, I will reach there in half an hour].’
“I was so thrilled and this speaks volumes about a person you know, the kind of respect he has for his senior members, the kind of respect he has for the game and the kind of respect he has for the whole community. So this guy is one guy who has given his best and he has carried a lot of responsibilities on his shoulders and he is too down to earth. In life also.”
Our telephonic conversation had already traversed many topics, and I had no intention of hanging the phone either. Almost spontaneously, I asked him about that iconic six off Imran Khan on his ODI debut in Gujranwala, and he took me down memory lane and gave me the backstory behind it.
“I was actually expecting a bouncer because, in the Test match, the first ball I bowled to Imran was a bouncer. I was told by one of my seniors that be ready, he’s going to bowl you a bouncer whether you like it or not. And I was like it doesn’t matter and I was ready for it. I actually wanted to hook it but the ball came quicker than expected. Instead of going towards deep square-leg, it took the top edge and went for a six.”
Could it have lasted a bit longer? Could he have played more than what he eventually did? For Ankola, “what ifs” will last but the man is at peace with his achievement, sharing none of it for the sake of anything else.
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