Talk to people about Karnataka wicketkeeper CM Gautam, and you repeatedly hear about how he loves to bat under pressure, and how he is a 'streetsmart' cricketer. Ask them to explain the second part and there are anecdotes aplenty. "In the Buchi Babu tournament this season, he got the opposition team captain and bowler to quarrel among themselves," Karnataka batting coach J Arunkumar chuckled. "When another batsman hit a four, he said 'what a slap', or something like that to the bowler, the bowler didn't like it and Gautam started laughing loudly which really upset the bowler. He started bowling bouncers, he ducked against that and again laughed, he disturbed the bowler so much that the captain stopped the spell, and that really helped us."
For nearly five seasons now Gautam, 26, has been a fixture in the Karnataka line-up, breaking into the team as a batsman before taking over the gloves from the long-serving wicketkeeper Thilak Naidu. Always a source of runs for Karnataka in the lower-middle order this season, aided by a promotion to No. 4, he hit the headlines with 943 runs, the highest season-tally in Ranji Trophy history by a wicketkeeper.
"I bat No. 4 for my club, and my bank team," Gautam said when asked to explain his purple patch this season. "It gives me a lot of time, I have time to settle down, I can read the bowler, I can read the situation well, and during the off season I really worked on my fitness."
Arunkumar, who took over the Karnataka Ranji team this season, said he realised straightaway that Gautam could be pushed up from his usual position at No. 7. "Technically I knew he was a lot sounder, he was like an opener basically," Arunkumar said. "His concentration levels were always good. I trusted him to get a lot of runs for me, he was very happy with it when we promoted him in the batting order, he was waiting for it. He knew he was now seen as one of the main batsmen in the team, and that he could not take it easy and throw away his wicket."
For many Ranji batsmen, their run haul is boosted by a bounty of meaningless second-innings runs but Gautam's numbers have hardly been padded by cheap runs. There was an unbeaten 130 in a high-scoring first-innings shootout against Tamil Nadu, followed by a two-hour unbeaten 26 that denied Uttar Pradesh an outright win, a second innings 71 to help defeat Delhi despite conceding the first-innings lead, before the highlights of his season, the 250-plus scores against Vidarbha and Maharashtra.
"The double-hundred I got in Pune was very special because we needed to win the game outright and the team needed me that time," Gautam said. It was the final league match of the season, and Karnataka had to take six points to stand a chance of qualifying. His 264 set up a massive lead, but his job with the bat wasn't done yet, as he had to return in the second innings with an eight-ball 16 as Karnataka hunted down the target of 89 in the 12th over with eight balls to spare.
Gautam has always been a busy player, strong on the sweep and always on the lookout for singles to avoid getting bogged down. "He knows where to pick his runs, his strong point is the back V," Arunkumar said. "When they block that he plays the cuts and drives really well, he plays the over-covers shot really well, he sweeps from fine leg to mid-on, you know it is very difficult to stop a batsman like him from scoring runs."
While his batting has flourished, his keeping too has improved though questions remain over his ability to stand up to the stumps. Irfan Sait, Gautam's mentor who has coached him for the past 15 years, said: "He has tremendous reflexes but he just needs some finishing touches. He has to work on his agility while keeping up to the stumps."
"I hadn't kept much to spinners before. We used to play three fast bowlers, and only Sunil Joshi used to bowl spin," Gautam said. "But now I'm getting used to it as we're always playing two spinners, and JAK [Arunkumar] has been helping me out."
Arunkumar has used an unusual method to help Gautam, using a broomstick instead of a bat during catching practice so that he is better attuned to taking faint nicks. "Sometimes what happens is, when you hear the sound, your hands get stiff, so to get used to it, I [practise with the broomstick]," Gautam explained.
He has 34 dismissals to go with the wagonload of runs this season, and has been rewarded with a place in the India A side for the warm-up match against the Australians. Gautam said he "fancied his chances" of making the senior side soon, and when reminded that plenty of other wicketkeeper-batsmen, including Parthiv Patel, Dinesh Karthik and Wriddhiman Saha, had had solid seasons, he joked, "That is my bad luck."