"It was on April 1, 2013, that I left my home in Kanpur. That's nine years, two months, and some days. I can't wait to go home and give my parents a hug."
It's as if Kumar Kartikeya has a counter in his head reminding him of his self-imposed exile: he vowed to go back home only "after becoming something in life". It's unlikely he will have imagined he would accomplish that goal as quickly as he has, though.
"Whatever I expected, I've achieved somewhat," he says. "I've not yet reached where I ultimately want to, but I've come to a certain point, where people recognise me now."
He made his first-class debut in 2018, bowling traditional left-arm spin, but it wasn't until Mumbai Indians signed him midway through IPL 2022 and he switched to bowling left-arm wristspin with an array of variations, that his career hit another gear. In the four games he played in the tournament, Kartikeya's confidence and skill, much of it self-taught, stood out.
When he returned to Bhopal, where he lives, from the IPL, an airline official recognised him and gave him a ride home. It was a small validation of the notion that he had indeed become "something".
But while his homecoming will have to wait, his family has been in his thoughts. In his hour of glory, as he lifted the Ranji Trophy, he missed his grandmother most.
"My grandmother didn't like my bade papa [father's older brother] naming me Kartikeya," he says. "She asked him if he knew who Kartikeya was. He said, 'Yes, I know, he's Lord Shiva's son.' She said, 'Not that. Kartikeya always stayed far from his father. If you give him such a name, he'll have the same characteristic.'
"My grandmother kept telling bade papa that it was because of the name he gave me that my life turned out in such a way that I needed to be away from home.
"She always wanted to watch me on TV. She did see me in a Ranji match but passed away last year.
Kartikeya's dreams first took wing when he was a 16-year-old new to Delhi, under Sanjay Bhardwaj, the Dronacharya Award-winning cricket coach who runs the famous LB Shastri Cricket Club in the city. Bhardwaj was convinced of the boy's talent after one net session. And when he learned about how Kartikeya travelled 80km a day to train, while holding down a day job as a mechanic at a tyre factory, he was struck by his dedication and offered to train him for free and to take care of his day-to-day needs.
"The first day I met him, he told me that whatever expenses I had, shoes, clothes, whatever is needed for your cricket, I will provide," Kartikeya says. "I started weeping. Who does this in Delhi? He said, 'Just think that I'm like your father.' I got very emotional then. Since I had come to Delhi, everyone just wanted to take from me. 'Give me this much and I'll do this for you.' He spoke only about giving. I felt so nice. Even now, where he stands for me, nobody else does. He is everything for me.
I was not the only one - he did it for a lot of players. Some 70 players have played with him, of whom 30-35 have played the Ranji Trophy, 10-12 have played in the IPL, and a few have played for India, like Gautam Gambhir, Amit Mishra, Joginder Sharma. Among the women, Reema Malhotra. Whichever player he thought was hard-working and honest in his work, he helped them with everything he had."
When Kartikeya had put aside some savings from his cricket earnings, he wrote a cheque out to Bhardwaj - who refused to take it. "I had told him that whatever I earn throughout my life, I'll give you 30%," Kartikeya says. "When I first offered it to him, he didn't accept it," he says. Then I said, 'Sir, there are many kids like me who come to you. This will help them.' That is when he accepted the money."
It was Bhardwaj who impressed upon Kartikeya the need to be different to stand out. That drove his transition from left-arm orthodox to left-arm everything, especially in T20 cricket.
"In the T20 game, if I bowl normal left-arm spin, there is a greater chance of being hit," Kartikeya says. "But if I bowl deliveries that batsmen can't read which way it's turning, then it's not so easy to hit."
He learned by spending hours and hours on YouTube, picking up the mechanics of the carrom ball from watching Mujeeb Ur Rahman, and developing his googly off what he saw Akila Dananjaya and Rashid Khan bowl. Likewise, Yuzvendra Chahal and Adam Zampa were the templates for his left-arm wristspin. The flipper was taught to him by former India and Madhya Pradesh bowler and one-time national selector Narendra Hirwani.
"I studied their grips and fitted them to my action with the same grip," he says, demonstrating. "I can bowl with the normal grip but that will be easy for batsmen to pick. So now I bowl left-arm spin, legspin, googlies, carrom balls, all with the same grip.
"I have one thing, with regards to bowling - my mind is sharp. I can pick some things up very quickly."
After watching his role models intently, he put what he picked up into practice, bowling marathon sessions in the nets. "I've practised for this a lot. I mean, I over-practised," he says. "When the IPL started, I had done six months of practice with legspin and carrom balls. I used to do single-wicket practice for three-four hours daily. I would bowl six variations in six balls and continue that for three-four hours."
"I spoke to my coach also several times, because at the back of my mind I did have doubts that if I try these variations, it could spoil my left-arm spin. But he told me, 'Left-arm spin is in your blood. You've been bowling it for ten years. If you bowl legspin for a couple of months, nothing will change. So if you think you can bowl it, do it.'
"When he told me that, I felt more secure. Earlier when I used to practise this on the ground, several people told me not to do it, that my left-arm spin will get ruined. They said I was established in the Ranji Trophy team, and asked why I wanted to try this.
"I kept all this to one side and kept the belief in myself that I can do it. I used to speak to my coach, and he told me that there's nothing that I cannot do. If I decide to do something, I will do it. So whenever I thought it's not happening, I would speak to him for ten minutes. It would give me a kick."
Kartikeya takes great joy in narrating his experiences, and he writes about them as well - in journals he keeps. Chances are, even this interview might find its way into an entry. "If I fumble, we can retake, right?" he asks with endearing earnestness, before talking about his writing habit.
"If someone tells me something, I write it down in a diary. I have three-four diaries, and one of them is for noting down who has told me what. In one of them, I note down the good things people tell me - if there's something motivational that I want to always remember. Then there is one diary in which I write down what happens in my life. Everything that has happened to me so far is written there.
"I don't write every day but at intervals."
Has he written about particular challenges he has overcome?
A few days before the game, Iyer ribbed him with, "Pray to God that I don't play the match." "I told him, 'It's fine,'" Kartikeya says, laughing. "'I've got my planning done for you.' He said he wouldn't spare me, and I said, 'We'll see.'"
"I've always felt that on a good wicket, he can easily hit me. So I had it in my mind that I can't let him smash me, and I need to bowl a delivery he wouldn't understand. I bowled legspin to him. The first ball was a carrom ball and it went for four from the outer edge. Next ball, I bowled a googly and he hit me for six. Then I bowled a legspinner. He thought it would be a googly and he got a top edge and got caught."
Iyer and he get along well, Kartikeya says. "When I did well in the Syed Mushtaq Ali [domestic T20s] this year, he told me that I'm such a bowler that I can play at a higher level anytime, but I need to concentrate on my fitness and diet." Iyer said that he needed to stop giving in to his sweet tooth if he wanted to play top-level cricket.
"I don't eat sweets now," Kartikeya says. "When I go home now, I'll tell my mother in advance that I can't eat gaajar ka halwa, because right now it's more important that I play! As long as I'm playing I won't eat sweets. Yes, it will be difficult to tell her, of course. But if she insists on making it, I'll tell her to make it sugar-free."
On the last day of their Ranji season opener against Gujarat, MP were defending just 196. Pandit thought Kartikeya had been overconfident and conveyed as much without mincing his words. Kartikeya took it in his stride but left the meeting saying, "Sir, don't be tense. I will win this game for you. If I don't, you can leave me out of the side." He picked up 5 for 34 in his side's 106-run win, which set the tone for their campaign.
Kartikeya is clear he has miles to go before he can dream of resting on his laurels. Bhardwaj's first message when he returned from his first IPL season was, "You have one blue jersey [Mumbai Indians] now. The main blue jersey [India] is still left. Don't think you have achieved something big. This is just the start. You have a ladder, climb it. Always respect the game."
Recently a Bollywood film-maker approached Kartikeya with an offer to make a film about his life and career, much like the recent Pravin Tambe biopic. Kartikeya politely refused. "There is so much to achieve still," he said. "Let's see after I become 'something'."