Prayas Ray Barman takes an Uber to come see me because he's too young to drive. We meet late in the afternoon on an early-March day in a café in a packed mall near Esplanade, a fair distance from where he lives, in Nagerbazar in north Kolkata. He is dressed in a polo shirt and track pants and stands out with his athletic frame, but no one openly recognises the cricketer who, just under a year ago, became the IPL's youngest debutant.
In December 2018, Barman was picked up by Royal Challengers Bangalore for Rs 1.5 crore (approx US$ 208,000 at the time) at the IPL auction. A couple of months later, during a team event ahead of the season, Barman looked up from his phone to find Virat Kohli asking him how he was doing. A lifetime's journey had seemingly been squeezed into his first few months as a senior cricketer.
But the biggest surprise for Barman was the fact that he got to play at all. Having assumed he would spend the season practising and being groomed for the next year, he sat in the dugout, watching Royal Challengers' disastrous opening game, against Chennai Super Kings on a turning Chepauk pitch. But before their third match, against Sunrisers Hyderabad, he got the unexpected call-up.
"Till the toss, I didn't know I was playing," Barman said. "Nehra sir [Ashish Nehra, assistant coach] told me that I might play, because [Yuzvendra] Chahal had a bit of a finger injury. The next day Chahal bowled a few balls and said he's okay to play. So Nehra sir said, 'Hard luck, you're not playing today, but it's a long season.'"
A minute before toss time, head coach Gary Kirsten gathered the team into a huddle and said that they reckoned the pitch was a bit dry and that an extra spinner would help. Barman was to make his debut, at 16 years and five months.
"At that moment I thought, 'I'm not warming up as a player who will play the match.' It was an afternoon match, so it was pretty hot. I was like, now I've to do my bowling, I've to catch a few balls, I've to get into the zone of playing. We chose to field first, so that half an hour was the most important half an hour of my life. It went by like five minutes."
When he came on to bowl at the end of the Powerplay, Sunrisers were 59 for 0. Their belligerent openers, David Warner and Jonny Bairstow, had made century stands in their first two games and looked set for another big partnership here.
"If you spend some time with me you'll see that I'm a very confused kid," Barman says. "I don't know what I am doing and where to go next"
Before the match, Barman says he had read something about a steep patch in the landing area of the pitch that would allow him to rock back and bowl fuller than usual. One of the first thoughts he had when he got the ball was that he needed to adjust his action accordingly. Both batsmen were watchful as Barman settled into a nice length and had them driving down the ground at worst and dabbing to leg at best. He conceded six runs, his cheapest over of the innings.
In his next over, he dropped one marginally wide outside off and Bairstow stretched his hands to slap it over the extra-cover boundary. A regal, deflating shot followed by back-to-back fours.
"In the pre-match bowlers' meeting, we said that we wouldn't give Bairstow much room because he likes to free his arms, hit it over covers," Barman said. "The second ball of the second over, I bowled wide because I was expecting him to step out. He didn't, so he was able to free his arms. Virat Kohli came up to me and said, 'Don't be worried about what he is doing. Don't bowl defensively and don't try to stop runs. Just try to get him out, because if he gets out, all the runs are checked automatically.' So that was what I planned on doing, but that didn't click that day."
Warner and Bairstow went on to set a record opening stand - 185 - and make individual hundreds in Sunrisers' highest ever total. Barman finished his quota for 56 runs, more than he had ever conceded previously in a four-over spell.
"There was this feeling that I was not able to deliver for the team," Barman said. "But I knew that the likes of Chahal, Umesh Yadav, all these world-class bowlers had been hit for some runs. So I was like, I've not done good, but it's okay, it's a bad day for the team. Gary said, 'It's all right, you were good, there's nothing to worry about.'"
When RCB travelled to Jaipur, Rajasthan Royals legspinner Ish Sodhi told Barman that on another day, he could have had 2 for 20 with the same spell. Unfortunately for Barman, another match wasn't in sight. Kohli's team began their season with six losses and tried as many as 19 players in the season as they navigated that rut.
A stress fracture in the back after the IPL sidelined Barman for three to four months and he hasn't played any recognised cricket since. Nor was he was retained by the Royal Challengers.
Ahead of the 2018 auction, Royal Challengers were among four IPL teams interested in Barman, who had topped Bengal's wicket charts (11 in nine matches at an economy of 4.45) in his debut Vijay Hazare Trophy season.
Barman delivers with a high arm and his stock trajectory is flat. He is not overly reliant on spin, and that makes accuracy one of his strengths.
The Royal Challengers asked him to send in video footage of his bowling in the tournament, and clearly they were impressed with what they saw. At the auction Barman was their only front-line bowling pick, after a brief tussle with Kings XI Punjab.
Watching from his grandparents' house in Kolkata, Barman could barely process it. Sixteen at the time, and having only moved to Kolkata from Delhi three years prior to focus on a career with Bengal, Barman had ended up in his favourite IPL team, one led by Kohli.
"There was a time around 65-70 lakh and it [the bidding] stopped and it was in RCB's favour. I thought it's good that I'm in RCB. I'm not craving a lot of money here, but I need to be in that team. That's my favourite team. But then it continued," he said.
He spent the first half of the season shuttling between Kolkata and whichever city the team was in, with improvised practice sessions squeezed in when he wasn't studying in hotel rooms for his year 12 central board exams. With letters from the BCCI and the franchise, he managed to reach out to the board of education to get his exam dates postponed.
Barman describes himself as someone who will rarely begin a conversation, but remembers pushing as much as possible to speak with team-mates like Kohli, AB de Villiers and Chahal during the course of the season.
Chahal spoke to him about "out-thinking batsmen", and de Villiers encouraged him to try things out. "I've not played much T20 cricket, so I asked [de Villiers] what I could do. He spoke about the technical part and said, 'You are delivering the ball well, you have a great action, similar to Anil Kumble. You have a good height that you can use to your advantage.' So that was a great moment."
While the IPL provides a lot of exposure to young and unknown players like Barman, it cannot always substantially aid the growth of cricketers who are on the sidelines, particularly when it comes to match skills. Barman was not used to the workload he experienced as a professional in the IPL.
The back niggles he wanted to deal with after the tournament developed into a stress injury, even as he focused on getting picked for the Under-19 World Cup. He lost about four months recovering. Then on the eve of the 2019 Vijay Hazare Trophy, he suffered a finger injury and his prospects of being back in the IPL for the 2020 season diminished.
"There was this feeling that I was not able to deliver for the team. But I knew that the likes of Chahal, Umesh Yadav, had been hit for some runs. So I was like, it's okay, it's a bad day for the team"
"I thought that was coming [being dropped in the IPL]. If I was there in the Syed Mushtaq Ali squad and played one or two matches, I think the chances of getting back would have been more."
As we talk, Barman comes across as a level-headed and self-aware. A hint of where those might originate is in the story of how his IPL riches were managed - by his father and a financial expert, invested in a flat in Kolkata. There's also the warming anecdote of the advice he was given by his grandparents before he left for the IPL: don't accept drinks from strangers.
For a boy who was seemingly in the middle of a fast-paced dream sequence just about a year ago, Barman seems like he has managed to return seamlessly to his regular life. "If you spend some time with me, you'll see that I'm a very confused kid," he says. "I don't know what I am doing and where to go next. It's been kind of a not-so-methodical way that I'm leading my life right now. Need to take some time and do a bit of work so that I'm moving towards one goal."
The confusion is evident when he describes the BA course he's currently pursuing as "something to do with economics and English". But for the most part, his assessment of his life strikes one as that of a sensible, level-headed young man, despite the spontaneous peak he achieved last year.
He is one of the several young Indians who, as the media describes them, have become "crorepatis" in a matter of minutes. Barman stands out with his attitude. He does want to get back into the IPL, but not at the cost of his education.
"You don't know when what happens. I was injured when my 12th results came out. By that time I knew what an injury can do. You have to finish graduating. I've not been attending college, [but my] college is supportive. Not even my parents are giving me a lot of pressure to study. They're just hoping I get my degree."
As he plots a way to become a multi-dimensional, multi-format legspinner, Barman has shed the pressure that comes with being an IPL player. Since his experimental foray into Bengal cricket as an 11-year-old, he has been a regular in their developmental cricket. Last year, with the sudden catapult into senior cricket, Barman wasn't too sure if he should be "senior-driven or U-19 driven". Now, with the message clear from Bengal management that he continues to be in their long-term plans, and with a more relaxed off season and workload, he is settling into a routine.