Salil Ankola - pacer, actor, fighter - returns to ‘first love’ cricket

Ankola, who had made his debut in the same Test as Sachin Tendulkar and Waqar Younis during the 1989-90 India vs Pakistan series, is ready to help Mumbai cricket again by unearthing new talent as chairman of senior selection committee .
File photo of Salil Ankola.(Twitter)
File photo of Salil Ankola.(Twitter)
Updated on Dec 31, 2020 03:11 PM IST
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Mumbai, Hindustan Times | By

Salil Ankola is no stranger to bouncers—either while bowling them to batsmen on the pitch or tackling them when life has thrown one at him off it.

The former fast bowler’s promising career met an untimely end due to a leg injury, forcing him into retirement at the age of 28 while still being at the top of his game. To make ends meet, Ankola tried his luck at acting and soon carved out a niche for himself in an industry where there’s more scope for failure than success. And that’s after admitting to having “no clue” about being in front of the camera despite having the good looks. Twice Ankola has gone into rehab to treat alcoholism and depression but like most other challenges, he overcame that too.

Last week, Ankola was reunited with his “first love” cricket after being away for a couple of decades when he was named the chairman of Mumbai’s senior selection committee.

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“No half measures now that I’ve come back to serve Mumbai cricket. Since the news became public, I’ve got a couple of offers—a Marathi film and a Hindi web series—but I’ve refused both. I proudly told them that I’m into cricket now,” says Ankola.

It was cricket that shot him into limelight during his first Ranji Trophy season in 1988-89. The 20-year-old, playing for Maharashtra then, claimed a hat-trick on debut, finishing with figures of six for 108 against Gujarat in a West Zone match. He ended that season with 27 wickets in five matches.

In a country desperately short on genuine pacers, Ankola was like an oasis in a desert. He was soon fast-tracked into the Indian team for the Pakistan tour of 1989-90, making his debut in the same Test as Sachin Tendulkar and Waqar Younis in Karachi.

ALSO READ | T Natarajan added to Test squad, Umesh Yadav heads back to India: Report

Bur while the careers of Tendulkar and Younis sky-rocketed, Ankola’s was a roller coaster. He suffered a spate of injuries that forced him to remodel his action. The proverbial long rope wasn’t for Ankola as a result he could not cement his place in the Indian ODI team of the 1990s —getting merely a game or two here and there. “I would never question why I was dropped, why I wasn’t in the team,” says Ankola. “But later on I started questioning myself as well.”

From the 1990-91 domestic season, the tall and lanky right-arm pacer started representing Mumbai and became part of the dominant Mumbai outfit. His appealing looks meant modelling offers also began to trickle in but Ankola was focussed on cricket. “I already had two-three movie offers when I was selected for the 1996 World Cup,” says Ankola.

He was dropped in the subsequent series after the World Cup despite playing just one match in it—against Sri Lanka at the Ferozeshah Kotla. His last international series was the 1997 ODI tour of South Africa before the fatal blow. “It was during a domestic game, where I was bowling well and with pace. Then I suddenly fell down,” recalls Ankola.

Those were to be his final deliveries as Ankola was later diagnosed with bone tumor in his left shin. “I was at my fittest and optimum level of my cricketing life. It was a horrible operation not done properly. I wish I had listened to people and gone abroad to get it operated. I had good six-seven years of cricket left in me, if not more,” says Ankola.

Career in acting

His cricket snatched away, Ankola delved into fish farming business in Vasai. But a construction boom on the outskirts of the Mumbai suburbs meant that the water quality dropped rapidly and with it his business. Being the sole earner of a joint middle-class family and cricket then not paying the millions it does now, the “necessity” to put bread on the table moved Ankola into the booming world of television.

Hesitant at first, Ankola consulted his friends—including Nana Patekar—and took the plunge. “I still remember my first day on the set. I was shooting for a series called Chahat Aur Nafrat aired on Zee TV. The news of my shooting spread and suddenly there were news channels on the set. My dialogue was, “Main aa raha hu” which was to announce my arrival in the serial but I kept fumbling and had to give 44 retakes. I was never so nervous playing cricket,” says Ankola.

He put in the long training hours to hone his acting skills and it paid off. Ankola even acted in a few films but made a name for himself in sitcoms, becoming one of the most sought-after actors in that sphere for close to a decade.

On the personal front, however, things remained rocky. “My personal life was in shatters because of some wrong choice of friends and acquaintances. Before I could realise it, I lost a lot of things, a lot of relations, a lot of money,” says Ankola.

Ankola terms his second wife Ria Banerjee as “Godsend”, someone who got his “perspective” back after pulling him out of nadir that saw him go into rehab for alcohol addiction in 2008 and 2010. “I was put in rehab for no reason. If a person is drinking and doing nothing it’s a different story. But I was working every day of my life. My shows were on air as well. There were so many other reasons which I don’t want to discuss,” Ankola says of his time at rehab.

Ankola and Banerjee—a major in psychology who has worked with the World Health Organisation, UNICEF, Bill Gates Foundation and the Indian government—met on Facebook and tied the knot in 2013. “When I met her, I was zero on the bank balance and relationships front. I told her everything about me in the first meeting and she accepted me the way I was. I found the purpose of my life in her,” Ankola says.

His last big television gig was the 2016 mythological serial Karmaphal Daata Shani, where he portrayed the character of Suryadev. It ran for a year-and-a-half before he decided to take a step back from acting.

“I came back (to cricket) so that I can be associated with cricket again, because I was trying to fill a kind of void for the past five years. I didn’t really feel like going on the set, waiting and putting on that makeup. I started to question myself, saying “this is not me”,” he says.

At 52, he is in a happy space now. He never skips a gym session—his bulging biceps are proof—and such is his obsession with fitness that he built a full-fledged gym in his home during the lockdown.

Those who know him closely term Ankola “dildaar” (generous) who is always ready to help people. Now, Ankola is ready to help Mumbai cricket again in his quest of unearthing new talent that can take the city’s game to its former highs.

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