On April 1 this year, the first day of Rajasthan Royals' pre-IPL camp, K Gowtham was tingling with nervous excitement. The prospect of meeting Shane Warne for the first time had him imagine many times how the first conversation would go. When Warne eventually arrived, Gowtham expected nothing more than a few pleasantries. Instead, he was welcomed with "KG, you're my project for IPL 2018." This was no April fool's joke.
"Can you imagine, a legend who has 1000 international wickets coming to me and saying that?" Gowtham asks, as he jogs back to the day. "I was glad he had seen what I'd done previously. Initially, I was like 'okay, what does he expect from me?' But I realised how easy it was to connect with him at a human level. It was just like two individuals having an easy-going discussion where there is communication from both sides. There couldn't have been a better welcome than that."
It's easy to get swayed by his bare IPL 2018 numbers - 126 runs and 11 wickets at an economy rate of 7.80 - and term Warne's project as unsuccessful. However, Gowtham's was clearly a case of numbers not revealing the full story. His unravelling of Jasprit Bumah in just his fifth IPL innings with the side needing 43 off 17, was among his highlights. Gowtham took him for 18 and finished with an 11-ball 33 to help the side pull off a heist. With the new ball he was the skiddy, wicket-to-wicket bowler whose role was to restrict runs.
The change in role with the bat, however, was a deviation from the one he performs in Karnataka's limited-overs set-up, where he is an accumulator of runs, but it was one he embraced. "Shane didn't tell me to change anything with my batting or bowling," Gowtham explains. "It was more on mental strength and how you come back from tough situations. How your mindset has to always remain as if nothing is wrong - whether you take 4 for 20 or 0 for 48.
"He kept saying 'pause, think over, what best can be done.' Things like how you observe subtly a batsman's feet movements to see what he's trying to do next, and what you can do to ensure he doesn't do that, either through your variations or by changing the field. How you can enjoy the game on the field, how intensity matters the most, these are things which gives you a lot of confidence to get into the game. Basically he's a big influencer who carries a lot of positive energy."
It's this stint and the learning that he has derived from the IPL stint that he hopes to carry forward, now in the Quadrangular series, where he's part of 30 fringe players who will feature for two India sides along with the A teams of Australia and South Africa. In the 'A' tri-series in England this summer, Gowtham's numbers were unimpressive: two wickets and four runs in three matches. But that minor blip isn't something that he's worried about.
"Royals gave me the freedom to be myself, express myself. That has helped," he says. "As a franchise, they backed each and every player to come good in their role. I wouldn't say just in batting, bowling or fielding. As a professional, you are anyway supposed to do all these things, but when you get the liberty and when you get the chance to explore facets of your game on your own, it makes a huge difference."
That he isn't an introvert helped him form bonds with his team-mates, which he says helped massively. "I interacted a lot with Ish Sodhi, who had a lot of ideas. He hasn't played much here, so he used to ask me about varying pace, getting the best out of these surfaces. With Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler, it was about preparation and match awareness.
"Bowling, I always used to trust Jos, because he used to give me inputs. In fact you can see in a couple of videos where he stops me and then comes up and gives suggestion about fields, and how to bowl. All these things are just the cricketing side of it. For me, it's the human side of them that I enjoyed the most. How simple they are as people and how they're receptive to your thoughts.
"Their work ethic, understanding their culture, their values - these are things I try and derive. Yes, cricket is important but these are also things I try and pick up. The ethics what an international cricketer carries, I wanted to get into their mindset. I'm a spinner, Jofra Archer is a fast bowler, so skillsets are different, but mindset can remain the same. Mental strengths, how do they think about the game, those things I envy and helped me to up my game."
In this transformation period, he has also benefited from the expertise of Rahul Dravid, the India A coach. "The best thing about him is, he won't unnecessarily say things. He says something only when it is necessary, but he used to challenge you," Gowtham says. "One day he came into the nets and said try and get me out, I was like 'okay'. It was an optional training. I said I'll bowl you six balls and get you out, and I did. That was fun."
With the anecdote out of the way, Gowtham comes back to his serious self. "You can't call him a coach-coach kind of person, he's someone who can talk to you about any situation on the field; he's faced so many. It may be nets, but getting 'The Wall' out gave me a lot of satisfaction."
Unlike many of his peers, Gowtham isn't a cricket nerd. But he isn't the one to miss out on picking up quirks if he sees them, like R Ashwin's away-drifters and swingers for example. "I don't watch much of cricket, I love playing," he says. "Everyone has their own way. Watching, I would do only when I would do when there's something like the Eden Test (2001), or important games. These kinds of games, I watch.
"When the Edgbaston Test was happening, I had to balance out training, practice, so you don't get opportunities to watch. I keep track though. On those surfaces, the Duke always does a bit more than a Kookaburra. He [Ashwin] was using seam, shine to aid him, these are the things red-ball cricket allows you.
"These are skills, you can pick up watching videos, but you have to work on your confidence. It needs years of practice, you cannot completely copy it, but I try and execute it. In a Deodhar Trophy [match] six months back, in Himachal, I did try out something in the nets and then replicated it in a match, in the last over. It's not about muscle memory, but about your confidence levels. At the end of the day, cricket is a confidence game."
The confidence, as he talks, defies the image of a man who was at the crossroads four years ago, not knowing if professional cricket would give him another chance. Four years in the wilderness taught him "life lessons" he's glad for as he looks to make his late bloom count. Like many, the upcoming season could chart his course.