It's a drizzly Saturday afternoon in 2016. There's a slight breeze across the ground, with nothing but gloomy clouds on the horizon. At the picturesque Karnataka State Cricket Association (KSCA) Stadium in Hubli — hosting a Karnataka Premier League fixture — wherever the Mangalore United attack is bowling, K. Gowtham is launching them over the stands and out of the ground.
Some balls disappear into the nearby bushes around the perimeter, and a few towards the construction sites. Some hits are so huge they would have been six on the biggest grounds in the world.
Two years down the line in a pre-IPL camp for the Rajasthan Royals, Shane Warne, arguably the greatest legspinner of all time, would tell Gowtham that he was going to be his "project" in IPL 2018.
"A legend like Warne coming and saying that to any player will do a world of good to their confidence," says Gowtham.
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Twenty-one days after the interaction, Gowtham would give a glimpse of what Warne saw in him: An 11-ball 33 to take Royals to a thrilling final-over win in Jaipur, an 18-run over against Mumbai Indians' Jasprit Bumrah, one of the world's best death bowlers, being the highlight.
Over the last three seasons, Gowtham has risen through the ranks to become an important member of the Karnataka team, making it a habit of fashioning improbable wins with bat and ball.
Against Tamil Nadu in the 2019-20 Ranji Trophy, Gowtham delivered a thrilling 27-run win with a spell of 8/60 in the second innings, having snapped up six in the first innings.
Incidentally, the 31-year-old bowled the final over in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy in Surat, helping Karnataka win the title by defending five off four balls.
But it hasn't been all hunky dory for him. Between 2012 and 2016, Gowtham battled form and issues with his bowling action, remaining on the outside fringes of the Indian first-class circuit.
He made a comeback during the 2016-17 season, breaking into the Ranji Trophy side and taking 27 wickets in eight matches at an economy rate of 2.61. His consistency eventually earned him an IPL contract worth Rs 6.2 crore with the Royals.
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"Warne's advice wasn’t so much about my batting or bowling as about working on my mental strength and ensuring the mindset remained positive regardless of the situation," Gowtham says. "He always stressed on enjoying the game on the field and talked about keeping the intensity up throughout. I imbibed his advice and it reflected in the freedom with which I played."
In 2019, Gowtham smashed the fastest hundred in the KPL, racing to a ton off 39 balls at the M. Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bengaluru. He hit seven fours and 13 sixes during his unbeaten 134, before taking eight for 15 from his four overs — the best-bowling figures in T20 cricket, overtaking Colin Ackermann’s seven for 18 in Vitality Blast — in the same match.
"Patience is paramount. It’s a process that begins with building pressure by denying them scoring opportunities and ends with their wicket. The idea is to outsmart the opponent," he says.
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On his comeback trail, Gowtham also benefited from the experience of Rahul Dravid, former India A coach. "Rahul (Dravid) sir has had a big influence on my game. That’s where I learnt the importance of containing the batsmen," Gowtham says.
"He told me you can control the game without taking wickets. As an off-spinner, it’s a big challenge, but he always spoke about trusting the process. He used to say, “It’s good you are bowling economical overs. That’s what we want.”
"What it does is, it gives me that extra cushion and time to string the dot balls together, and if you’re lucky, a wicket will come your way."