Kaushik Gandhi rates 2016 as one of the best years of his life. He topped Tuti Patriots' run charts (366 at an average of 45.75, strike rate: 140.76) to help them clinch the inaugural edition of the Tamil Nadu Premier League. Later, he finished as Tamil Nadu's second-highest run-getter in the 2016-17 season of the Ranji Trophy with an aggregate of 785 at an average of 60.38. From a non-cricketing perspective, too, the year was a watershed, as he got engaged to his friend for nearly half a decade.
At 27, however, Kaushik has endured enough bad days to not get carried away by the good ones.
"The funny thing about cricket is, no matter how good 2016 was, if we don't win in 2017 it would end up spoiling the entire year," he told ESPNcricinfo ahead of Tamil Nadu's Ranji Trophy semi-final against Mumbai. As it turned out, Tamil Nadu went down by six wickets, with Kaushik scoring 50 and 9*.
Although Tamil Nadu will have to wait at least one more year to have another crack at the Ranji Trophy title, they haven't let the defeat spoil the rest of the season. They won four of their five games in the inter-state T20 tournament (South Zone) and were placed second in the standings behind Karnataka.
While Kaushik didn't play a single game in the competition, he was Tamil Nadu's second-highest run-getter in the league phase of the Vijay Hazare 50-over tournament - where they have progressed to the knockouts - with 245 runs including an unbeaten hundred against Himachal Pradesh. For the first time since his first-class debut in 2011-12, Kaushik has found himself front and centre of his team's fortunes. But this is also the first time he has played more than two games in a season. He turned out in two Ranji Trophy matches in 2011-12, didn't get a game in the next two seasons, and then played two games each in 2014-15 and 2015-16.
"If I were to be very critical, I didn't make use of my opportunities," Kaushik says of the stop-start beginning to his career. "I can't blame the state because we had a lot of names to boast upon batting-wise - [S] Badrinath, KB Arun Karthik, M Vijay, Abhinav Mukund and Dinesh Karthik.
"During that scenario, the only chance you got was when Vijay was not playing. KB was dropped twice after scoring a hundred. You can't compare this year with then because it's a totally different scenario. But, I am happy that this year I have made use of those chances."
After Kaushik's consistent run with Jolly Rovers in the TNCA first-division league earned him a recall, his major challenge was to break the two-games-a-season pattern. The team's pre-season camp at the Abhimanyu Cricket Academy in Dehradun proved to be a turning point. Under the supervision of new coach Hrishikesh Kanitkar, Kaushik and the batting unit acquired a rigorous work ethic that translated into strong scores in the middle.
"You won't believe this, but personally I look forward to the practice sessions more eagerly than the match itself," Kaushik says. "This is because you don't get the claustrophobic effect in the match that you get in the nets. It is harder batting in the nets, especially facing these three guys - [fast bowlers] T Natarajan, Aswin Crist and K Vignesh - who have done so well. I want to play out every net session without giving my wicket to these three guys, which in turn gives me a belief that I will be able to play out as many sessions as I can."
Kaushik says a system in which batsmen had to leave the nets once they were dismissed helped put in place a more disciplined approach. One dismissal could often mean a long wait before your next turn. "We used to play free-flowing cricket at the start. There would be a lot of edges and dismissals," he says. "But, from then to now, if you look at the difference, we ensure we play close to the body, leave the balls outside off and respect good balls. The bowlers, on the other hand, try and make the batsmen play as often as they can. These are the boxes we tick in the nets.
"In the nets, if I play 40 balls - even if those 40 balls are a mixture of four-five bowlers - I approach them like the first 40 balls of my innings. Because that's when there is most chance of your getting out. If I have played the first 40 balls without giving away my wicket, it means I have at least got my eye in. If I get my eye in three to four times, I am sure I will make it big on one of those."
In a Ranji team filled with stroke-makers, Kaushik was the stabilizer that batted time. In the opening game against Mumbai, Kaushik, batting at No.6 and 7, managed 0 and 7. Ahead of the next game against Railways, captain Abhinav told him he was batting at No.3. The turnaround began then and there.
When Kaushik talks about his contributions, he throws up partnership numbers and not individual scores. For instance, he scored 42 against Railways, but refers only to the 126-run partnership with Abhinav that set up the outright win. The imposing individual scores would soon follow. Against Madhya Pradesh, he batted for more than nine hours to score 157 and went on to notch up 164 against Punjab and 202 against Gujarat.
Kaushik feels playing at neutral venues helped Tamil Nadu discover newer facets of their game."From a batting perspective, we used to be branded - this is the case for most batsmen in India - as being incapable of playing on green tracks," he says.
"Then, there have been questions over TN's fast bowling stocks after Bala [L Balaji] anna's retirement, but I think these three guys have answered it very well. I think that's only happened because of neutral venues because had we played at home I am sure we would have been confused if we should be playing on turners or otherwise. And even if we had prepared good, sporting wickets, it wouldn't have been as good as we get in the north from a seamer's perspective."
Kaushik says he has benefited immensely from Kanitkar's keen eye. "Kanitkar is someone who has a lot of knowledge. If you go and dig deep, there is so much to learn," he says. "He doesn't say much, but if there is something you aren't doing properly, he immediately steps in. For instance, he saw me trying to play the uppercut in the net before the Railways match. He asked me to not attempt it as the bowlers wouldn't bowl that [short] to me in the match."
Another coach who helped Kaushik this season has been Patriots mentor Monty Desai. By striking at 140 in the TNPL, Kaushik ended up surprising himself. "I think that is what you should ask me about as it doesn't come naturally to me," Kaushik says with a smile. "There was a local T20 league in Chennai where I was the leading run-getter, but I hadn't played too much T20 in the past, so I didn't know I could pull this off. But it is mainly about mindset - while I would leave the ball outside off in the longer format, here I would want to whack it out of the park.
"I worked on a few particular shots like the uppercut. I tend to learn fast, so that helped me. Monty Desai gave a lot of very good ideas on when to launch, how to play the situation. In this era, I should be able to play a T20 today, a 50-over game tomorrow and a five-day match the day after. That adaptability has to come in naturally."
Kaushik's earliest cricketing education came from his father P Mohan, who used to play in the Chennai league. Kaushik says his father was instrumental in teaching him the right values of the game. Mohan died following a heart attack when Kaushik was only 16. "He taught me how to go about practice, how to not let one or two successes get to my head," he says. "Doing the right things, even in the nets, comes from him. He used to say I should play even the last ball of a nets session properly. Every day is definitely a tribute to him.
"From the day I started playing a decent level of cricket, JR Madanagopal has been helping me. At Chemplast, Ajay Kudua, Jayakumar and Bharath Reddy sir have always motivated me. There is also one of my best friends called Narasimha who gives me throwdowns whenever I need."
By his own admission, a major contributor to his on-field success has been his relaxed state of mind off it. In the past, he would sweat over every failed stroke, but over the years he has learnt to switch off during his downtime. Watching movies with with friends and playing football - Kaushik was deemed good enough to play for a third-division side in Chennai, but turned down the offer - helped, as did spending time with his fiancée Shivapriya, a Bharatanatyam teacher, news anchor and software engineer.
"I don't mix my cricket life and personal life," Kaushik says. "That I hadn't settled in my career or established myself in the Ranji side didn't come in the way of getting engaged."
When asked if his second name hints at a Gandhian link somewhere in the family, he laughs. "I was born in a district called Gandhigram - it is place near Dindigul - so I was given that name. There is no connection to Gandhi, but the name came in handy whenever I was ragged by my seniors at school. Other students would quickly warn them that I was Gandhi's relative."