"Mahi bhai, Andre Russell scoop aur paddle nahi karta. Short fine leg hataake deep square laga sakte the [Mahi bhai, Andre Russell doesn't play the scoop or the paddle. We could have removed the short fine-leg and put a deep square-leg instead]."
That's not Virat Kohli having one of his routine consultations with MS Dhoni. This was Ruturaj Gaikwad, a 21-year-old rookie top-order batsman, who did not feature in a single IPL 2019 game for Chennai Super Kings, asking his captain if he had erred by letting the Kolkata Knight Riders danger man off the hook. Each of Russell's five fours and three sixes had come in the arc between long-off and deep square-leg, not one behind the wicket. Russell had rescued a floundering innings and remained unbeaten on 50.
"Sharp cricket mind," Dhoni told Gaikwad, who smiles as he narrates his conversation with his hero. "Thodha chhota karne ka plan tha, aur short fine top edge ke liye ruka tha. Aise hi involved rehna [The plan was to bowl a little shorter, and the short fine-leg was for the top edge. Stay involved with the game like this]."
That's 'Rutu' for those who know him well, like Surendra Bhave, the former India batsman and Maharashtra coach. "A confident young man, who is comfortable carrying himself around the superstars," Bhave tells ESPNcricinfo.
But why are we talking about Gaikwad now, you might wonder. It's because he has moved up the ranks to become an India A regular on the back of some impressive performances for Maharashtra in 2018-19. He was their leading run-getter in last year's Vijay Hazare Trophy too, with 365 runs in eight innings at 45.62 and a strike rate of 90. While his Ranji Trophy numbers were slightly less impressive, the selectors clearly saw something in his game and decided he was primed for the step up.
I asked Mahi bhai this when I joined the CSK camp. 'Yaad hai aapko?' He said: 'bilkul, sirf woh sign nahi, but tumhara shot [to get out] bhi.' You're talented, keep scoring runs in domestic cricket
On his India A debut, however, Gaikwad was out for a golden duck, against England Lions in January 2019. It was to be, however, just a small blip in the course of a glorious summer. His scores for India A in List A cricket during the home series against Sri Lanka A and in the Caribbean against West Indies A read: 187*, 125*, 94, 84, 74, 3, 85, 20, 99. That's 677 runs at an average of 112.83 and strike rate of 116.72. He did have three forgettable outings against South Africa A in Thiruvananthapuram after that, but Gaikwad isn't ready to tinker with his reputation as an aggressive run-getter who likes to dominate bowling attacks. And that's the confidence he wants to carry into this season's Vijay Hazare Trophy, which started this week.
Gaikwad is somewhat in the KL Rahul mode: a tall, lanky, right-hand opener. He might not be as stylish as the Karnataka opener, but Bhave says Gaikwad has a very simple game that is compact and suitable against all bowling. "I saw him first about four years ago, and I could immediately see there was an X-factor about him. I'd heard of him scoring a double-century in an Under-19 game where Maharashtra were 250 all out. And people were talking about him, so I took a look at him and have been impressed. He's fit. He's an outstanding fielder, bats at a very good clip. His mindset is that of a run-scorer. At times he has to curb his aggression, but some of his shots - just wow."
Gaikwad is from a Pune-based family that has always valued academics highly. His father is a Defence Research Development Officer and his mother a teacher at a municipal school. None of his cousins, with whom he grew up in a large joint family, played sport. But, in 2003, watching Brendon McCullum scoop Australia's fast bowlers at Nehru Stadium in Pune got him hooked to the sport. He was just six then. Soon enough, he was playing too. At 11, he joined the Vengsarkar Academy in Kondwa, a Pune suburb, and has been training there since.
Initially a middle-order batsman, Gaikwad's breakthrough season was 2014-15, when he was the second-highest run-scorer in the Under-19 Cooch Behar Trophy. In the following season, he made 875 runs at 97.22, leading to a Ranji Trophy debut against - guess who? Yes, Dhoni's Jharkhand, in New Delhi, a game he remembers fondly, even though he made just 15.
"Mahi bhai was Jharkhand's mentor. I wanted to impress him, but suddenly got hit by a bouncer from Varun Aaron and fractured my finger," Gaikwad remembers. "I wanted to come off, but Kedar Jadhav told me to carry on. After a point, I just couldn't tolerate the pain, so tried to hit out and was caught. At the lunch break, Mahi bhai came over to talk to me and signed my bat and wrote 'get well soon' on my plaster."
Frankly speaking, I didn't expect to get picked for India A so soon, but now that it has happened, I'm only learning to take the good with the bad and be balanced about things. I try to learn as much as I can from every session
Gaikwad is replaying the moment in his mind as he speaks. "In fact, I asked Mahi bhai this when I joined the CSK camp. 'Yaad hai aapko [Do you remember]?' He said: 'bilkul, sirf woh sign nahi, but tumhara shot [to get out] bhi [Of course. Not just the sign, but the shot too]. You're talented, keep scoring runs in domestic cricket.'"
Gaikwad was among the Super Kings' last picks at the December auction at his base price of INR 20 lakh, something he wasn't expecting. "After the first round for uncapped players, I switched off the TV and turned on my Playstation," he says. "My number was 80-odd, and suddenly from 75 it jumped to 110. So I thought my chance was gone.
"After some time, I started getting messages. That's how I found out about my selection. My parents were out of town and returned later that night. It was only when a friend came home with a cake that they actually believed I had been picked."
Gaikwad hasn't modelled his game on anyone, but likes to pick out aspects from those he has watched and followed. He talks a lot to contemporaries Shreyas Iyer and Shubman Gill, with whom he's spent some time at the India A set-up. He shares a good rapport with Ankit Bawne too. "We're all close friends, we learn off each other," he says. "The India A system is very competitive, but it's a special place to be in because we learn from each other, even if we may directly or indirectly competing with each other.
"Frankly speaking, I didn't expect to get picked for India A so soon, but now that it has happened, I'm only learning to take the good with the bad and be balanced about things. I try to learn as much as I can from every session. Like, earlier this year, Stephen Fleming (Super Kings' coach) told me: 'don't premeditate at the nets, just allow your instincts to take over, because match pressure is a different ball game.' So from then on, I've tried to consciously cut out risks early and try and play out 10-15 balls."
What if there's a bad ball? "Sehwag mantra, see-ball, hit-ball," he laughs. "In fact, during the recent tour of West Indies, I tried to follow his funda of hitting a six to get to a century, but I was out caught for 99."
Gaikwad is witty and candid, and up for a laugh, even if the joke is on him. That, he says, is how he is. Not intense, but not too casual either. It is a philosophy he has followed from observing players and getting to spend time with them in the IPL and the India A set-ups. "Once I know I'm set, I know I can score quickly, I just want to dominate," he continues. "There's no fear. By dominating, I don't mean playing rash shots. Rahul Dravid sir said, sometimes a good leave or a good forward defense can also show signs of a batsman's domination. I haven't spoken much to him one-on-one, but these words have stayed with me."
Gaikwad is aware that to be considered at the highest level, he needs to show consistency across formats. In List A cricket, he averages an impressive 53 across 41 innings. In first-class cricket, though, he's managed just 38 in 15 matches.
"In 20 first-class innings, only once or twice I've been out early. Mostly been getting 30 or 40, 70-80. The conversion isn't there and I need to get better," he agrees. "In one-dayers too, I have 15 fifties [he has 14], and have been out from 75-99 some 11 times. In first-class, if I've scored 70-odd in one innings, I've been out cheaply in the second innings. It's not like I'm getting out on zero. I know if I iron out this and figure things out, I can get big 100s."
So, clearly, he's one of the geeky sorts who remembers numbers. "Because it irritates me," he says loudly. "I do all the hard work and then I get out when I know I'm capable of much more. Hopefully the coming season, I can correct this."
Bhave reckons Gaikwad could fulfil his potential if he sticks to the straight and narrow. "The best part about his batting is that it is simple. There's no complication, no awkward back lifts, shoulder dipping and all that," Bhave says. "If you look at all quality players, simplicity is their forte. He keeps it like that. Like to drive the ball, but has an equally good back-foot game, is a very good puller of the ball. At the international or A level you won't get too many half-volleys to drive, so your back-foot game has to be good and he has that. I think he has a lot of upsides. The way he's shown form at the India A level, we expect him to carry that for Maharashtra and hope he can pile on the runs. If he has a good season from here on, he'll be right up there in contention."
Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo