Varun Chakravarthy burst onto the cricketing scene in 2018 as a mystery spinner with a bagful of variations, but his life - and career - has had more twists and turns than there are variations in his repertoire.
He started his career as a wicketkeeper-batter who wanted to become the "next Dinesh Karthik", then had a cameo as an actor in a Tamil movie, Jeeva, when he was trying to break through as an assistant director. Somewhere along the way he ditched cricket and movies for architecture. He then returned to cricket again as a mystery spinner who could turn the ball both ways at a quick pace.
It was those abilities, a prized and uncommon skill set, that gave Kolkata Knight Riders' attack a potent point of difference in the 2020 and 2021 IPLs. Soon after, Varun played for India in the 2021 T20 World Cup in the UAE. However, in IPL 2022, his form and rhythm plummeted so much that he was benched for three games. The ball wasn't quite turning both ways or he wasn't giving it much of a chance to do so by uncharacteristically tossing it up too full, which allowed batters to get underneath the length and pump him over the top. The mystery in his bowling seemed to have disappeared.
There is one constant theme in Varun's life: he has always bounced back from setbacks - both on and off the field. In 2017, for example, he started his own architecture business, but the floods in Chennai that year damaged his sites, resulting in heavy losses. He managed to find a way to overcome that disappointment. If anything, setbacks have been catalysts for him to bounce back. Just like when he decided to switch his career path to cricket from architecture.
Having experienced such lows in life, Varun didn't allow a few bad games in the IPL last season to send him into a shell. "Yes, obviously, I take the lessons [from life]," he says. "Cricket is part of my life and whatever happens in life also affects cricket. So I try to implement life lessons into my cricket as well and what I have understood is that even during your ups and downs, you should be level, and the only people who will always be with you are your family.
"I know that I'm not foolproof or damage-proof and I was expecting this kind of an [IPL] season at some point. Everyone will go through a low time, but it's about coming back."
Sriram Krishnamurthy, Varun's coach at Madurai Panthers in the Tamil Nadu Premier League and a former coach with Northern Brave Men in New Zealand, credits Varun with maintaining an equilibrium in both his cricket and life. "Even though he had that IPL season he had, one good thing about Varun we've seen from day one is, he never gets too high and never gets too low," Sriram says. "While his confidence was dented after the last IPL, he wasn't broken, and that comes down to the person that he is. He's very practical and realistic about understanding the game and life per se. That's a big strength of his because I feel like for someone who has had the life he has - being a late entrant into cricket - and how far he has gone, for anyone else, it could have taken them away from reality. We've seen other players get lost after this sort of quick success, whereas I feel with Varun, he is always focused on what he has to do and I feel the mental element of bouncing back from failures is there with him."
What went wrong with Varun last season?
Having worked his way up from a tennis-ball background, he previously hadn't played or practised as much as he did in the last five years. As a result, he veered away from his strengths and some undesirable technical changes also crept into his bowling. His run-up became slower, his lengths fuller, and overall his bowling lost some of its fizz.
In the UAE, Varun got some of his fuller ones to skid or hold off the pitch, but on fairly easy-paced hit-through-the line Indian tracks last season, batters lined him up easily. According to ESPNcricinfo's logs, he conceded 107 runs off 48 full balls last IPL.
Around the time he was relegated to the sidelines by the Knight Riders, he sat down and watched his old videos to remedy his bowling. "After those games, I had a break," Varun says. I was basically trying to flight the ball, which was not my expertise. I [now] bowl quicker and that has worked for me. It was better sticking to that. Personally, I worked on my run-up as well. I realised it quite late, but I came to know that was a mistake.
"I [had] just started running slower because… if a cricketer practises for a long time again and again, there are a few basics you might forget, which you usually get right. It was a case of that and then when I watched previous videos of my bowling, I realised I was running slow. Then my run-up was quicker, like what it was before, and I feel that was the difference. The last three matches for KKR went well for me after the break."
Once he returned to action for Knight Riders in the last stretch of IPL 2022, Varun hit the pitch much harder, increased his pace, dragged his length back, and denied batters easy access to the boundary. He stuck to his guns in the TNPL 2022 that followed and he and Sriram tried to recreate what had worked for Varun when he first broke into the IPL.
"I remember having a conversation with him about what he was doing well when he was going well, in terms of the pace and length he bowled," Sriram recalls. "By being slower through the air and bowling fuller, he was also giving batsmen an opportunity to sort of get to the pitch of the ball, and when you're doing that you take away the element of [doubt about] which way the ball is going to go. From that perspective, we discussed how he was successful by bowling that length or slightly back of a length, which made the batsmen play him pretty much only off the pitch. The quicker pace with which he bowls means batsmen will have slightly less time to react.
"He did go towards doing something different in the last IPL. For a player to evolve, he has to constantly keep working, and that was probably the journey Varun was going on as well. On the basis of performance, it didn't necessarily reflect too well on how he did for KKR in that IPL, which again dented his confidence a little bit. But again, the clarity he had about his own bowling and whatever the conversation we had was not about me telling him what to do, but it was a process of rediscovering what he did well before, and to his credit, he was fully aware of his strengths. So he recreated that confidence. [Also] there is a difference in the quality of batting in TNPL and IPL. So it gives him a bit more space and time to get his confidence back, so to say."
With the IPL returning to the home-and-away format, Varun is set to play for KKR at Eden Gardens for the first time. He is usually not a big turner of the ball and particularly relishes bowling on bouncier or even flatter pitches. With Eden Gardens no longer the turner that it once used to be, Sriram thinks Varun has the tools to be penetrative at the venue.
"Varun is slightly taller than most average spinners and the other thing is his high release point," Sriram says. "That release point helps him get bounce off the wicket. He has to bowl that length to extract that bounce. If he uses his height and release point… like he said, maybe he's not a massive turner of the ball, but he turns the ball enough. If he ensures that the batsman doesn't have too much time to sit back and think, which comes down to the pace at which Varun bowls, then I feel that will set him up well."
Varun has tuned up for the new IPL season after getting ample game time with Tamil Nadu in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, Madurai Panthers in the TNPL, and Vijay CC in the Chennai league during the city's oppressive summer.
"At Tamil Nadu and in the TNPL, they've been using me as a death bowler, so it's something that challenges me and hopefully I'll be able to do the job in the IPL as well," Varun says. "KKR have shown a lot of faith in me, which is important for any player. The KKR management has always been in constant touch with me on how I'm doing and all those things. I'll always be grateful to KKR for what they've bestowed upon me and the responsibility that they've given me.
"Right after the end of the IPL, we had another camp at the KKR academy. Normally people have a camp before the IPL, but the same players were part of another camp. You don't know if you will be retained or not, but still we trained with the same bunch of guys. That's something I liked about what they did last year, and it basically helped our preparation for Syed Mushtaq Ali [Trophy]. Regardless of whether they're going to retain that player or not, they called all the Indians for the camp again. Hopefully, I can live up to the expectations this IPL."
As a retained player, the expectations on Varun to deliver are even greater this IPL and whichever way this season goes, it could well add another twist to his career.