Mahipal Lomror comes from Nagaur, a town in Rajasthan. The highway from Nagaur to Ajmer passes Kota, a town famous for its tutorial centres, where students come from all around to prepare for exams to gain entrance to the prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology. Most of the ones not academically inclined turn to music or farming. Cricket is an afterthought in Nagaur.
There is just one proper multi-purpose ground in the town, mostly unused because there is no real culture of kids playing, a rarity in India. Watching the IPL on TV is mostly a no-no, because it eats into study time.
Lomror, now 19, knew he wouldn't make it big from there. He had to keep batting by himself because other kids wouldn't turn up to play, fearing a parental scolding. At the ground, there was one cricket net, where Mukesh Prajapath was the coach. Prajapath felt the youngster had to shift base to Jaipur, and that's where Lomror carved an identity for himself.
In 2016, he was part of the Indian team that finished runners-up to West Indies at the Under-19 World Cup. In age-group cricket, he was the other half of a deadly combine with Rishabh Pant, who played for Rajasthan during his Under-14 and Under-16 days. Lomror and Pant were hailed as the 'Jai and Viru' (a reference to Sholay, the iconic Hindi film), and did most things together before they went their own ways - Lomror stayed on in Rajasthan, Pant shifted to Delhi.
"You see these guys on TV, and suddenly they're your mates. You're awestruck. Last year, Jos came up to me and broke the ice. That's when I became more confident. This season when Smudge (Steven Smith) arrived, we took the same cab to training." PRASHANT CHOPRA
As a 14-year-old, Lomror took the bowling apart in a club match against a Mumbai side to impress Chandrakant Pandit, the former India wicketkeeper and an old-school coach who is among the most successful in the country. Lomror was called 'Junior Gayle' at the time. Today, still in his teens, he captains Rajasthan in the Ranji Trophy. He is also the only player from the state in the Rajasthan Royals' roster at the moment.
He trains with Ben Stokes, shares bowling videos with Shane Warne, and enjoys all the facilities he didn't have when he started out. Yet, when he returns home to Nagaur, his mother's first question is: "It's good you're on TV, but when will you get a stable job?"
"I'm a cricketer because of my grandmother," he tells ESPNcricinfo. "As a 12-year-old, when my father and coach decided I had to move to Jaipur to pursue cricket, she moved with me and gave me emotional support. I owe this journey to her."
The chat with Jos Buttler that changed Prashant Chopra's attitude
Prashant Chopra grew up in Solan, a town bordering Shimla in Himachal Pradesh. His father Shiv was a coach at the Sports Authority of India and the family lived in government housing, with all facilities at their disposal. His father's job took him to New Delhi and Chandigarh, where he continued to train at better-than-average facilities.
"During MS Dhoni's early years as captain, he trained often at Delhi's National Stadium, where I spent most of my time. That inspired me," Chopra says. At 18, he would return from Australia as an Under-19 World Cup winner (in 2012), where he'd formed a fearsome opening combination with Unmukt Chand. When he returned to his village, it took him half a day just to oblige the stream of well-wishers. He was primed for bigger things. They haven't come yet.
But, today, he is a hero in Himachal Pradesh first-class cricket. Only one batsman - BB Nimbalkar - has scored more runs in a day in Ranji Trophy history than Chopra's 271. His itch to be a part of the IPL ended when Royals signed him in 2018. There, though, he has largely been in the reserves, but is soaking in every bit of time and opportunity he can get to learn from Jos Buttler. At 26, Chopra's best years are ahead of him.
"Last year, when I joined the camp, I was hesitant," Chopra says. "You see these guys on TV, and suddenly they're your mates. You're awestruck. Last year, Jos came up to me and broke the ice. That's when I became more confident. This season, when Smudge (Steven Smith) arrived, we took the same cab to training. I hadn't met him before, but I spoke all along the way to the stadium. If you can get their time, you never know what you would get out of the interaction.
"Golden words from those who have played at the highest level can't be bad, the ideas they have are different, and that could help me further in my game."
Before that, for three years following the Under-19 World Cup win in 2012, Chopra expected an IPL call, but it didn't come. In 2017, instead of "wasting time at home and watching IPL on TV" he decided to play 50-overs cricket in Bangladesh, in the Dhaka Premier League. It taught him to be responsible.
"Bangladesh has a good limited-overs set up, a number of international players were there. I was a professional there, so that gives you a sense of responsibility," he says. "Till then, I wasn't that responsible. It didn't come naturally to me at Himachal because we had Robin Bist and Paras Dogra. That experience of being responsible and carrying the batting in Bangladesh helped."
"There's a vast difference between watching from the dugout and being in the middle. When I stepped out to bat, I was under a lot of pressure. A lot was at stake. Jos, Stokesy were all trying to calm me, but you feel pressure." RIYAN PARAG
The 2018-19 Ranji Trophy season wasn't particularly impressive for Chopra. He managed just 343 runs in 12 innings. When he joined the Royals camp, he was a low on confidence. This was when an interaction with Buttler changed his outlook, the hour spent with the Englishman "easily the most memorable interaction" he's had as a professional cricketer.
"I asked him 'what do you do when you're down and out, but still have to bat?' He said: 'When you get into the field, give the impression that you own this place'. He also said for us Indians, cricket is a big thing, we're emotional about it, but for the overseas players it's just a profession. He said, 'Cricket is just a game, when you're home, you have a family waiting for you. Be relaxed, express yourself on the field.' He said even if he didn't play another game of cricket, he'd walk away happy without any regrets, because there's much more to life.
"That opened my mind, to just enjoy cricket and not take it as pressure. Sometimes people have so much expectations on you, you have expectations of yourself that you stop enjoying your life. This chat really helped me. Now, when I face a bowler, I only see the ball, not his reputation."
His father played against MS Dhoni, Riyan Parag is doing it now
For Riyan Parag, cricket was an obvious career choice. His mother, Mithoo, was a national swimming champion, but he chose to follow his father, Parag Das, who represented Assam and Railways during the course of a 15-year career. As a youngster - he is still only 17 - in Guwahati, he grew up on a generous diet of throwdowns at the end of his father's training sessions.
As a 14-year-old, he could have been the youngest first-class debutant in India, but for the Assam selectors, who weren't on the same page as the state's then coach Sanath Kumar. Now Parag, like Chopra, is an Under-19 World Cup winner, has broken into his state's first-class set up, and is the third youngest to feature in the IPL.
Many years ago, his father and Dhoni featured in Railways' tournaments together in Kharagpur and Guwahati. They even finished top of the run-charts for their department in the Inter-Railways competitions in Nagpur in 2004, just before his India debut. They have also played against each other in the Ranji Trophy, when Dhoni turned up for Bihar several years ago. On Parag's IPL debut, Dhoni was keeping wicket and captaining the opposition.
Off the field, Parag jokes with Steven Smith, beats him at table tennis, banters with Ish Sodhi, and teaches Hindi words to Liam Livingstone. To him, Smith is a "buddy" and Stokes a "legend". Both have plenty of time for him and quite like being around the team's prankster, and youngest member. Fun and games aside, he's even shared a match-winning partnership with Smith, who has been impressed by his talent.
"He's a terrific young kid," Smith said of Riyan after their win over Mumbai Indians in Jaipur. "He works very hard, he's a fit and strong young kid. The way he batted, even in the first game that he played, he taught a lot of the experienced players a few lessons, including myself."
For Riyan, it's a learning curve, and that's all that matters. "My only motto at the IPL is to enjoy the tournament, not feel intimidated, not be afraid of asking questions, develop bonds with my team-mates and keep learning every day," he says. "So that when you're back home, you reflect on these learnings and get better so that the next time you're back, you're a better person."
"Bat like you're playing gully cricket"
While they haven't been regulars in the XI, Lomror, Chopra and Riyan have utilised the IPL experience to learn and polish their skills, both at cricket and at life. One of Chopra's biggest learnings has been moving from being a reluctant speaker to an outgoing person.
As Chopra explains his mental make-up, Lomror is listening intently. At one point, he wishes to step in, but holds back. When the talk drifts to 'there's life outside cricket', he pipes in: "But it's different for those who have given up everything for cricket, including living with family and moving away from their home town."
The rise of cricketers from small towns in India, none more famous than Dhoni, has been a remarkable, and much discussed, story. And the non-urban upbringing is evident in Lomror's approach to the game.
"When you have so many challenges at every step, you think differently," Lomror says - he is responding to a question on playing with a constant threat of everything going pear-shaped in Rajasthan cricket. He has even had to put together camps, not just take part in them - including just five days before the start of the 2018-19 domestic season. He's had to fight for nets, training balls, training gear, caps, water bottles, ice packs. The list goes on.
At Royals, he's keen to find out the human side of the superstars, how they prepare, how to put off-field worries on the backburner. "It's good to ask them (the stars) what I can do to get into the XI," he says. "They've been helpful. To be part of any IPL team is a privilege for a domestic player. With IPL, you always learn to work through failures and success.
"This you can't get playing for your state, because the experience of spending time with the overseas players doesn't come just like that. I'm just treating it as a learning experience."
All along, Riyan has one eye on the pool contest between Smith and Shreyas Gopal, going on right behind where we sit. He is confident, and carries himself comfortably, like he is among his class-mates in school. In fact, in his first outing on IPL debut, those were Stokes' instructions to him: "Bat like you're playing gully cricket, and think you're batting with you best buddy at the other end."
Yet, the maturity in his thoughts and actions shine through. Two days after joining the Royals camp, he spoke to the team management and returned home to write two of his Class XII board exams, before flying back to Mumbai. Most others in his place would have hesitated to put in the request.
His parents had considered sending him to Leicester to play academy matches hosted by his father's friend Anshuman Bhagawati, a former Assam player, and his wife Sonia Odedra, the former England women's international. As it turned out, he was the last player picked up at this year's auction. The Leicester plans had to change.
"I was told my role is in the middle order, as a finisher," Riyan says. "So I'm just working on batting deep, developing my skills and handling pressure. Everyone has skills but those who execute under pressure become a good player. I'm working on that with Amol Muzumdar sir (the batting coach).
"There's a vast difference between watching from the dugout and being in the middle. You don't feel pressure when you're watching from the outside. When I stepped out to bat, I was under a lot of pressure. A lot was at stake. Jos, Stokesy were all trying to calm me, but you feel pressure. Just handling pressure moments, taking it like a normal match. Facing Imran Tahir first ball was something else. But thanks to him for that full toss (laughs), I got my first boundary and I calmed down after that."
The mental demands of the game aside, Riyan has also found a calling in mystery spin. At the Under-19 World Cup, a finger injury in his left hand meant he couldn't bat. He worked on his secondary skill and developed as an offspinner, until another art caught his fancy.
"The World Cup injury was heartbreaking. I missed two weeks of the tournament, but Rahul (Dravid) sir had full faith in me and said I could play if I withstood the pain. My left hand was taped, but my right hand was fine, so I worked on my bowling then. Those little bowling contributions were handy at the Under-19 World Cup. I saw Mujeeb Ur Rahman bowl it at the tournament and he was all over the batsmen.
"Then I started watching more and more videos, and kept practising in my room. I talk a lot to Ish Sodhi about legbreaks, wristspin. He's such an experienced guy, and is very happy to give me tips. One thing my dad told me: 'make yourself free, don't hesitate to ask questions'. I've asked a lot of questions. A few more days, hopefully I can ask more questions."