How to keep up with the chaotic nature of T20s, the Varun Chakravarthy way

Moody: 'Chakravarthy has grown in confidence with the team' (2:20)

He feels Gambhir has a a certain role clarity for Chakravarthy in the KKR bowling unit (2:20)

"How are you feeling?"

These were the first words of Varun Chakravarthy's personal coach to the spinner after he had a bad night at the Eden Gardens, where Punjab Kings pulled off a world-record chase of 262 against Kolkata Knight Riders. It was his worst spell, in terms of economy rate, in T20 cricket.

Jonny Bairstow alone hit Varun for 25 off nine balls, including three sixes, on an easy-paced, bash-through-the-line pitch surrounded by small boundaries. At least two of those sixes were mis-hits and most certainly one was parried over the boundary. Varun, however, wasn't too fussed about it and embraced the chaotic nature of T20 cricket.

"I bowled well, but I was just slightly unlucky," AC Prathiban, the former Tamil Nadu and Puducherry spinner who works closely with Varun, recalls his charge telling him matter-of-factly after that game.

Prathiban was particularly impressed with Varun's maturity and game-awareness after a chastening outing. Having quickly put that Bairstow blitz behind him, Varun has picked up 12 wickets in five innings since at a strike rate of 9.5 and economy rate of under six. In a rain-hit game against Mumbai Indians at the same venue, where he had been expensive against PBKS earlier, Varun came away with 4-0-17-2, including the prized scalp of Rohit Sharma.

"Varun hasn't changed [his game] much," Prathiban says. "In one game, the ball lands five yards beyond the boundary; in the other it lands five yards inside the boundary and is caught. Like the [Heinrich] Klaasen wicket in the first qualifier on a bigger ground in Ahmedabad. This IPL season has had many 200-plus totals, and it has been an eye-opener for many bowlers. Varun hasn't panicked and it's his game-awareness that makes him a match-winner."

"Varun is focussed on making a comeback to the India team and we've been working towards that." AC Prathiban, Varun Chakravarthy's personal coach

KKR's team management values such traits as well, which is why they had Varun bowling his fourth over against MI in a truncated game where only one bowler could bowl four. They value it so much that they preferred Varun over the more experienced mystery spinner Sunil Narine on the day. Varun responded by dismissing MI captain Hardik Pandya with a hard-length delivery on a wide line and killing off their chase.

But it was Rohit's wicket that was more striking. After beating Rohit's outside edge with a biting legbreak, he pinged his pad with a wrong'un, but it didn't threaten the stumps. Varun's variations then forced Rohit into playing a shot he's rarely done in T20 cricket: reverse sweep. After two reverse sweeps and misses, Varun had Rohit top-edging an orthodox sweep to short fine leg.

Varun is also working on a flipper behind the scenes, but his ability to turn the legbreak more than he did in the past has made his variations even more potent now, according to Prathiban. Since his form plummeted in IPL 2022, Varun has been honing the legbreak to hide the ball away from the swinging arcs of right-handers who dare to hit him across the line.

"Honestly, Varun's best ball is the googly, which I think everyone knows," Prathiban says. "But we wanted to develop the away-going ball for the googly to be more effective. It was entirely Varun's idea to bring this ball out and we were just trying to make it easier for him rather than complicate it. When everyone waits for the googly, they might play him [like an offspinner], so we wanted to nullify that.

"There are other bowlers who have a lot of skills. Varun may not have all of those skills, but he knows when to use his skills. He reads the situation when to bowl the googly or legbreak to that particular batsman."

After KKR's match against Delhi Capitals, where Varun had claimed 3 for 33, he spoke about the significance of defensive skills in an IPL season where average scores and run rates have shot through the roof.

"The defensive ball is the offensive ball," Varun had told Star Sports. "I've been bowling wide lines and that has also ended up giving me wickets. Nothing was happening when I bowl at the stumps. That's how much the batters have pushed us."

T20 moves at a frenetic pace. Varun was left behind in 2022. But he has since kept up with it, with both his attacking and defensive skills.

Since the start of IPL 2023, Varun has taken 40 wickets in 27 innings at an economy rate of 8.16. No other bowler - fast bowler or spinner - has more wickets than Varun during this period. Having also improved his fitness, Varun had returned to 50-over action after five years, becoming the joint-highest wicket-taker in the most recent Vijay Hazare tournament, with 19 strikes in eight games at an economy rate of 4.27. He was also at it in other T20 tournaments such as the Tamil Nadu Premier League (TNPL) and the DY Patil tournament in Mumbai.

"100%, this has been Varun's best year in his career," Prathiban says. "He hasn't taken a break in white-ball cricket since the last IPL. Varun even played the Jamia Millia tournament, and he also played a quadrangular T20 tournament with the Tamil Nadu team in Andhra before the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy.

"If you look at the TNPL, you can speak about the boundaries being small, but you come across quality batters like Sai Sudharsan, Shahrukh (Khan), DK (Dinesh Karthik) and Vijay Shankar. Playing various tournaments and 50-over cricket was not to prove a point [that he's fit] but I feel Varun gets better when he bowls to different kinds of batters on different kinds of pitches."

Despite his stellar run, Varun hasn't had a chance to add to his six T20I caps - he last played for India in the 2021 T20 World Cup in the UAE. It just so happens that India already have two elite wristspinners in Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal. Then, there's Ravi Bishnoi, who couldn't make India's T20 World Cup squad, despite having sealed a remarkable victory for India in a double Super-Over finish at the Chinnaswamy Stadium no less.

"Varun is focussed on making a comeback to the India team and we've been working towards that," Prathiban says. "Before the last IPL, he asked me if he can make that comeback. I told him he stands a chance if he gets 20 or more wickets. He has done it in back-to-back seasons now, but selection is not in our control. Playing for India again is the destination for Varun."

Varun could take a big step closer to his destination if he caps the season with his first IPL title, in hometown. His professional cricketing journey had begun right here at Chepauk when he "tortured", in the words of Stephen Fleming, the CSK batters during his stint as a net bowler in 2018.

Post the Covid-19 pandemic, Varun has played two games for KKR in Chennai, but on both occasions his family had turned up in yellow to support MS Dhoni and CSK. With the home team knocked out of the tournament, Varun will have his family swap the yellow for purple and cheer him on to win the (other) purple cap in the final at Chepauk this Sunday.

"I'm feeling more responsibility again and [going] back to my home," Varun told Knights TV, KKR's in-house channel, on the flight from Ahmedabad to Chennai. "And this time, hopefully, the people, who all I call, will be supporting for KKR rather than CSK."