K Gowtham, the offspin-bowling allrounder, had just landed in Ahmedabad with the Indian team and had settled into his hotel room when his name came up for bidding at the IPL 2021 auction. Having been released by the Kings XI Punjab (now Punjab Kings) after just the one season, he was anxious, pacing up and down as the bids kept flying. By the end of it, after a tug of war, he was with the Chennai Super Kings, for INR 9.25 crore (US$ 1,273,000 approx.).
That made him the most expensive uncapped Indian cricketer at an IPL auction, surpassing Krunal Pandya's INR 8.8 crore by the Mumbai Indians in 2018.
"It was nerve-wracking, I was very anxious, watching on TV," Gowtham told ESPNcricinfo soon after he had found a new team. "We'd just landed in Ahmedabad and I'd just switched on the TV and my name came up. Emotions were changing every minute. Then, Rohit Sharma and Hardik Pandya knocked on my door and gave me a big hug and they asked for a big treat.
"It was a very happy moment, we were all smiles, it was like having my family with me at that very moment. They were all so happy for me."
Gowtham's base price was INR 20 lakh, and he was quickly the focus of a fierce bidding war between the Kolkata Knight Riders and the Sunrisers Hyderabad, before the Super Kings swooped in with a late bid. Some 1400 kilometres away in Bengaluru, Gowtham's parents and wife were on the other side of a video call soon after it was confirmed that he would be part of MS Dhoni's team. "My parents had tears, happy tears," Gowtham said. "It's hard to describe that feeling. It's all just sinking in. Obviously this isn't the first time I've been part of the auction but every time your name comes up, the kind of butterflies in your tummy is unimaginable. So they were equally eager and anxious to see me. But I think towards the end, they were also very happy. I could see that."
For Gowtham, being part of the Super Kings is thrilling enough, but playing under Dhoni "will be unbelievable". Three years ago, he had queued up with a few other uncapped players to get his bat signed by Dhoni after an IPL game. It was somewhat like his first meeting Shane Warne, when he joined the Rajasthan Royals in 2018. When Warne linked up with the team, Gowtham expected nothing more than a few pleasantries. Instead, he was welcomed with "KG, you're my spin project for this IPL!" With Dhoni, though, chats have so far been very limited, and he can't wait for more.
"The first time I met him, I asked MS what I needed to do to take my game to the next level," Gowtham recalled. He can't remember what Dhoni told him because he was so star-struck, but the autographed bat remains a prized possession. "It was a fanboy moment. After that, I've managed to chat with him a couple of times, haven't really had long chats, they have just been short and simple. I'm waiting to now join the set-up and have many fruitful conversations with him. It's an exciting feeling to play for CSK."
The auction is the latest episode in what has been a massive surge in Gowtham's career lately. At 32, he's still uncapped, but continues to remain on the fringes of the Indian team. He's currently a net bowler with the national team for the England Test series, and is an India A regular. At the IPL, he's been part of the Royals for two seasons and had a very brief stint with the Punjab side - where he featured in just two games - before being released.
"It was tough sitting out, yes there weren't too many opportunities, but I tried to make the most of my time," he said. "You're in a bubble, you're restricted in a way, you have just a few things to focus on and when you're not playing it can get tough. But I worked on my fitness, worked hard on improving my skills in the nets and making the most of learning from Anil Kumble and other senior coaches so that I could be ready whenever the opportunities comes. That is the kind of person I am, you have to keep learning and improving every day."
His confidence and understanding of his game and circumstances is very different from five years ago, when he was full of self-doubt, not knowing if cricket would give him a proper chance. He had been reported for a suspect action that needed remodeling, he was not even deemed good enough to be part of his state team Karnataka when his bowling action was deemed legal. It hasn't been easy, but he has made it work.
"That's the aim, keep giving your best. Every day is a new opportunity," he said philosophically. "My aim is to be a better version of my previous self. Day by day, keep getting better. It's just that simple."