By now, most fans and curious souls will have Googled and discovered enough about Varun Chakravarthy’s ride to Indian Premier League (IPL) auction fame. The former wicket-keeper, former seam bowler, former architect and a former ‘zero’, as he was called by some, has been pitchforked to headlines in newspapers across the country as one of the two priciest picks in the auction at Rs. 8.4 crore.
At the back of it all, it is his spin bowling in the Tamil Nadu Premier League (TNPL) and the Vijay Hazare Trophy earlier this year which catapulted him to dizzy levels that few would have expected even a few weeks ago. But those attuned to the dynamics of the auction room would comprehend the frenzy around the ‘mystery spinner’ — a term that draws franchise’s think tanks like a magnet.
The early interest during the auction came from Chennai Super Kings (CSK), which ran out of cash at Rs 3.40 crore mark and Delhi Capitals, which ran out of interest once his price went crossed Rs. 4.60 crore. Rajasthan Royals went up as high as Rs 6.60 crore but settled down to watch Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR), with skipper Dinesh Karthik at the table, and Kings XI Punjab (KXIP) chase one another down.
So, what is it about him that whipped up such an intense bidding war, leading to his becoming the joint highest bid for player at the auction along with left-arm paceman Jaydev Unadkat? Is he really such a devastating bowler who can spin webs of doubt in the minds of batsmen and cause them to worry about tackling his varied spin bowling?
He is on record as saying that he can bowl eight different kinds of deliveries. Of course, he has rich variety, including cutters and the ability to give the ball revolutions, clockwise, anti-clockwise and over. But does all that make batsmen wary of spin bowling skills which he developed after a knee injury forced him to give up fast-medium bowling?
Those who have watched him bowl say that he has a high-arm action, one of the pre-requisites for accuracy. He has exercised appreciable control over his craft and can be quite miserly, even if not always threatening to take wickets. The pace which he combines with spin make it tough for the batsmen to score freely off his bowling.
Yet, Varun’s first-class debut on a slow turner in Tirunelveli saw him finish with figures of one for 105 from 39 overs against a young Hyderabad side last month. He has not been in the Tamil Nadu XI in the four subsequent games, indicating that he has already been shown the harsher, perhaps even cruel, side of life in the higher echelons of cricket.
He will now have to come to terms with is the astronomical price that he secured at the auction. From Glenn Maxwell to Yuvraj Singh, Saurabh Tiwary to Jaydev Unadkat, highly sought-after players in the auctions have not endeared themselves with quality performances in IPL. Varun will have to keep his feet grounded as he plies his trade and seeks greater recognition.
He was on a high when he was roped in by Karaikudi Kaalai to play the TNPL in 2017 but did not have a memorable time. It was when he faced some ridicule. A year later, he was ready for the rigours of competitive cricket. He had employed the armoury chiseled in tennis-ball cricket in TNCA league and then in TNPL 2018 for Madurai Panthers with confidence.
The 27-year-old will get the opportunity to bowl alongside and learn from the seasoned Ravichandran Ashwin, but he will have to make an impact quickly in what can be a ruthlessly competitive environment. It does not accord the luxury of taking time to find wonted rhythm. He must hit the ground running or be exposed to the risk of being consigned to a list of expensive reserve players soon.
For, of all the bowlers branded as mystery spinners at some time or the other, only West Indian Sunil Narine has translated that tag to wicket-taking skills beyond the first season. Afghanistan’s Mujeeb ur Rehman promises to follow suit while Sri Lankan Ajantha Mendis and Sachithra Senanayake as well as Karnataka’s KC Cariappa have remained on the periphery as memories.
In 2013, Sri Lankan spinner Senanayake started at $50,000 and was bought by Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) for a whopping $625,000. He claimed nine wickets and disappeared from IPL thereafter. The original ‘mystery spinner’, Mendis, fetched a price of $725,000 in 2013 but Pune Warriors India used him in just three games during which he claimed two wickets.
Back in 2015, Cariappa’s price shot up from Rs 10 lakh to Rs 2.4 crore. He picked up a total of eight wickets in 10 games across three seasons. And has not drawn a bid for two years in succession. It is a pity that Varun will have to carry this burden on his shoulders, even if he has not sought to be branded a 'mystery spinner'.
Come to think of it, Cariappa and Varun are both products of the system. No, not the old-fashioned assembly line of age-group cricket but of the modern routes – widely telecast State T20 leagues in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Their bowling has confounded not only batsmen but also commentators who can build opinion, let alone viewers.
The architect in Varun will understand how such leagues can be beautifully designed, not accidental, launchpads for T20 careers at a higher level. The articulate cricketer in him will know that he will have to make it count, with no time to figure out how vastly more challenging, competitive, unforgiving and, therefore, satisfying such a pursuit can be.
Time will tell whether this hobby guitarist and part-time short film editor will end up writing a stellar script in IPL and beyond.