For a while now, the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy has been a meeting ground for IPL talent scouts. The domestic T20 competition gives franchises a chance to look at players who can fill the gaps during the auction. Last year, there were no scouts, and consequently no attention, because the tournament was held after the auction.
Karnataka's 25-year-old Rohan Kadamwas the highest scorer in the tournament, shepherding them to the title with 536 runs in 12 innings at a strike rate of 129.78. Despite that, an IPL deal, the fanfare, the hectic travel and the prospect of a "big life", as Kadam puts it, didn't materialise. He returned home with the trophy and reported to his bank job the next day. There was no major cricket for the next four months.
Eight months on from that title-winning campaign, things are looking up for Kadam. After being part of Karnataka's victorious campaign in the Vijay Hazare Trophy, he's now eyeing a second straight title in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy. The IPL talent scouts, meanwhile, are there this time, and he has already managed to elicit interest - no guarantees of being picked, of course - from defending champions Mumbai Indians, among others.
Honestly, I was unfit and overweight four years ago. I wouldn't even be able to complete two runs, and would be very tired.
"I was called to their trials in Navi Mumbai a day before the Vijay Hazare knockouts, so I didn't go," Kadam tells ESPNcricinfo. "I thought to myself, a chance to win a tournament for your team will be the best advertisement. So it didn't take me long to decide to say it wouldn't be possible [for me to show up at the trials], because I would've possibly returned from the trials and taken the field next day without much rest. And it's possible my mind would have wandered to it. Now, I don't even know if the trials were held or not, because I let it go and focused on Karnataka and even won the 50-over trophy."
With the scouts in attendance, Kadam put up evidence aplenty of why he could be a good fit, especially in situations where the team is fighting for survival. In the match against Mumbai, where Karnataka were reduced to 19 for 3 and the big guns - KL Rahul, Karun Nair and Manish Pandey - were watching from the pavilion, Kadam counter-attacked his way to 71 off 47 balls.
Karnataka lost that game, but walked away with the belief that they have people like Kadam who could take up the responsibility and bail them out of a batting crisis. It's this factor - their batting strength - that could give them the edge in the upcoming semi-final against Haryana and beyond.
One man watched from the stands with pride as Kadam batted with remarkable composure in that tough situation. R Muralidhar, known as RX Murali in Karnataka's cricket circles, is currently a talent scout with Kings XI Punjab. Four years ago, recollects Muralidhar, an "unfit Kadam" came to him for one-on-ones, wanting to "take his game to the next level". The pair has been working together since, and Muralidhar is amazed at Kadam's resolve to give his career a second wind.
"Honestly, I was unfit and overweight four years ago," Kadam says. "I wouldn't even be able to complete two runs, and would be very tired. People used to sledge me saying 'this guy can't even clear the 30-yard circle'. They used to throw the ball to only my end for run-out chances, because I was that slow. Naturally, people took notice of that. It's the easiest thing to notice. 'Hey you've put on weight' - this people would say all the time. I wanted to change that and started running."
The motivation came from watching J Arun Kumar, who was the Karnataka coach at the time. Kumar famously used to run laps around the ground while the team played. "He can play even now," Kadam says. "I saw him and got motivated. I started running, started feeling different. Now, I can confidently challenge even KL Rahul or Manish Pandey in a 100m sprint."
Kadam's openness about his weakness - according to Muralidhar - helped him get better, not just with his fitness but batting too.
He believed there were areas of the ground he couldn't access. He felt his range of shots was minimal. My job was to make him believe that wasn't the case. It was all in the mindRX Murali, Kadam's coach
"It's all a mind game," Muralidhar says. "He believed there were areas of the ground he couldn't access. He felt his range of shots was minimal. My job was to make him believe that wasn't the case. It was all in the mind, so instead of aimlessly hitting balls in the nets for hours together, we would have targets and work towards it.
"Part of it was his anxiety of not being able to break into the first XI as far as first-class cricket was concerned. When you have the batting line-up like the one Karnataka has, you have to wait. So, we worked on channeling that frustration, huge credit to him for transforming his outlook. He no longer worries about it."
Kadam makes it clear that the "worries" weren't about not having an IPL contract; he comes from a well-to-do family in Belgaum, his father - himself a club cricketer in Mumbai in his youth - runs a granite factory in the city, right in the middle of which he built turf wickets for his son and his friends.
"I have a comfortable life, so it's not the money. It's about the opportunities and trying to get better at what I do, be it the Ranji Trophy or IPL," Kadam says. "I've seen guys like Mayank and KL struggle and get to where they are today. I know if I work hard, I too can get there."
Kadam's love for cricket dovetails into his other interest. "Cars," he says, and smiles. He can reel out the names of cars that have been recently launched, their specifics and what makes them stand out. Such is his interest that team-mates often ask him for advice before buying one.
"Cars interest me a great deal," he says. "Whenever I travel to Belgaum, I prefer to drive 500km from Bangalore. The highways are nice, and it gives me a soothing feeling. The interest just caught on from a young age. I'm always reading about new cars in fine detail, or watching shows about them. It's my passion."
So who has the best car in the Karnataka team? "Ford Mustang - Karun Nair's car," he says. "I once drove it back from Alur to the city early in the morning. After that, I stated even working harder. Maybe I could get one too one day."
Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo