Twelve years ago, Shreevats Goswami was part of Virat Kohli's batch of India Under-19s that became World Cup champions in Kuala Lumpur. Within a week of his arrival in India, he had an IPL contract with Royal Challengers Bangalore, had the kind of money "which kids could only dream of", bought his first car, shared a dressing room with Rahul Dravid, Anil Kumble, Dale Steyn and Jacques Kallis. And to top it all, he finished the inaugural edition with the emerging player award. The world was at his feet, everyone assumed.
"Even before that Under-19 World Cup final, the BCCI had announced each franchise could pick two players from our squad. We had already started dreaming and thinking about IPL, Dav Whatmore (head coach) had to strictly tell us 'listen boys, there's a World Cup final coming up.' It was that mad," Goswami, now a mature 30-year old, tells ESPNcricinfo. "We all got carried away by the attention, money. Virat (Kohli) and I were picked for RCB. Everyone called it a party franchise. We didn't win much that year, but we were a rocking team with the glamour element. It was a different world."
But he'd soon realise, the initial name and fame was meant to last for "a while" and once the novelty factor vanished, it was back to the hard grind. When the realisation hit Goswami, he had to contend with being an understudy to Wriddhiman Saha at Bengal. It remained that way for a better part of his first seven years as a first-class cricketer, until 2015. His career is a mirror to Saha's and his struggles because of being an understudy to MS Dhoni during his prime. That explains why Goswami has managed to play just 55 first-class games in close to 12 years. And this season, having featured in 10 matches, he had to make way for the returning Saha in the grand finale.
"I've never felt pity on myself. If I keep thinking I am a victim of circumstances, I will never enjoy my cricket"
You throw this comparison to Goswami, half-expecting him to play the victim card. Refreshingly, he looks at his situation in a lighter vein, without blaming circumstances or luck. It's not common, and most certainly very rare in cricket, with stifling competition all around.
"Even in the IPL, Wriddhi is ahead of me in the pack at Sunrisers Hyderabad," Goswami laughs. "But look, we are good friends, we have a good vibe together. Sometimes, I put on a third person's hat and think: 'If I was in his shoes and there was someone else behind me, would it have been any different? The answer is no.
"When you stop thinking about yourself and look at it from a neutral perspective, you get clarity. That has helped me calm down. This is how sport is and I have to accept it. I'm not the first person, I won't be the last to be in such a situation. So I've never felt pity on myself. If I keep thinking I am a victim of circumstances, I will never enjoy my cricket. And you play for a short time, 10 years, maybe 12-15 if you're fortunate. Why not play it with happiness? I cherish the travel, the friendships I've forged, the bonds, the feeling of being in a team and winning tournaments. I'm that kind of person."
Goswami finds it hard to say if he lost his way, but certainly looks back at a few vital moments and wonders what could have been. Like in the Vijay Hazare Trophy 2009-10, where he finished as the highest run-getter in the competition as a 20-year old, ahead of Cheteshwar Pujara, Shikhar Dhawan, Kedar Jadhav, Robin Uthappa and Abhinav Mukund, to name a few. That season, he struck 568 runs in seven innings, with three centuries and a half-century as Bengal finished runners-up to Tamil Nadu.
"I won't say I lost my way," he says. "Let's be honest. Selection criteria in cricket has changed. When I was the highest run-getter in the domestic 50-over competition, I didn't get picked either in the India Emerging squad or for India A. Today, if a 20-21 year old, straight out of a successful Under-19 World Cup does that, chances are he will be fast-tracked. Maybe it was also the timing.
"When I scored those runs, I was playing as a specialist batsman and not keeping, because Wriddhi was. So you could say bad timing. After my first IPL season, I won the emerging player' award, I hardly got chances in the second season. So there have been a few moments that could have panned out differently. In Ranji Trophy cricket, I'm the first one to say I haven't done so well to be noticed. My keeping has been good, batting numbers not so good. People judge you by numbers. I got just one game for India A a couple of years ago, when Rishabh Pant was injured. I did decently, I thought, but it is what it is."
"Earlier, if nobody picked me, I'd be like 'no worries'. Now when I reflect, I guess I may have been wrong. But I can't worry about it now"
Goswami admits this kind of maturity has taken a while to come. He wasn't this way during his "carefree" younger days. It's time and experience that has lent a new dimension to his overall outlook. One look at his Twitter feed, and you'd know how genuine his feelings are towards team-mates, both seniors and juniors, who have done well for Bengal or for their respective IPL teams. For him, these things are as valuable as runs and wickets.
"Back then, I was a different person," he says of his teenage days. "If nobody picked me, I'd be like 'no worries'. Now when I reflect, I guess I may have been wrong. But I can't worry about it now. Now, even if I score 2000 runs in a season, there will be those who will say, 'oh, he's 30'. So yes, now it's more about playing without worrying about what the future holds.
"I keep looking at my cricketing journey and think: 'how many people have had a chance to play with geniuses like Dravid or Kevin Pietersen, Mark Boucher - I have. For me, it's the memories of being part of winning teams, sharing dressing rooms with legends, relishing friendships I've made along the way - all these things matter."
Goswami is spontaneous when asked about who his biggest critic is. "I am," he responds. "I always criticise myself. In India, there are thousands of people to tell you what to do, but not many to tell you how to do it. So all that doesn't matter. I have looked at myself harshly at times. So I am my biggest critic."
For an Indian cricketer to be so articulate about his thoughts, have this kind of self-awareness is very rare. Surely, he must be well-read, drawing inspiration from someone, somewhere? Goswami's case is different. He has no idols to speak of, and prefers to draw inspiration from every day life.
"I don't know what the future holds, but I'm excited. End of the day, if you can wake up with that feeling, you can't ask for anything more"
"I don't draw inspiration from a particular person," he says. "It's every day life I look at. Like in the semi-final, Anustup Majumdar bailing us out from 67 for 6 on a green wicket to make 149 was inspirational, match-turning. Manoj Tiwary making a triple century was inspirational. Akash Deep and Mukesh Kumar, coming from the backgrounds they do to play and be the champions. They are is inspirational. Shahbaz Ahmed rescuing is in the quarter-final with bat and ball - these are the kind of things that inspire me."
All along this up-and-down journey, Goswami hasn't let his parents get involved in his cricket, hasn't let his emotions show. Both during the good and bad times. "I know they've always supported me," he says. "I didn't go much to school because of cricket. The only option I had was this game. I was playing for Bengal since Under-14 days. They said 'this is his career, this is what he wants to do, let him pursue it'. My wife today says the same. Whether it's a good day or bad day, she's always supportive, says the right words."
Someone so serious about his thought process may need a release from time-to-time, you'd think. For Goswami, that comes in the form of annual vacations, impromptu trips with his wife Payal, a sports rehabilitation specialist and trainer from South Africa. She works with orthopaedic patients, chronically ill individuals and disabled sportspersons.
"Coming from sports background, she has sound understanding of a sportsman's mind," he says. "We train together while I'm away from cricket. We plan a yearly holiday after the season is over, sometimes pack our bags and head off spontaneously. We're not someone who plan trips. Right now, I'm in this kind of space where I'm very happy. The thirst for success drives me, but that is subjective. End of the day, you have to be happy. I don't know what the future holds, but I'm excited. End of the day, if you can wake up with that feeling, you can't ask for anything more."