People called me Zero, says IPL's latest sensation Varun Chakravarthy

Vignesh Ananthasubramanian

CV Varun

Who is Varun Chakaravarthy? This is something that will be going on everyone's mind after he was picked by Kings XI Punjab for Rs. 8.4 crores in the 2019 IPL auction.

In case you didn't know who he is, Varun is a mystery spinner from Tamil Nadu, whose stakes rose after the 2018 Tamil Nadu Premier League in which he played for Siechem Madurai Panthers nine wickets in 10 matches but he conceded just 4.7 runs an over which was very crucial in his team winning the title. 

He was called up by his stateside after his heroics in the TNPL and set the 2018 Vijay Hazare Trophy on fire as he ended the tournament as the second highest wicket-taker with 22 wickets in nine matches at an average of 16.6 and an economy of 4.23.

His rise to the top continued in the IPL auction in which he was bought by Kings XI Punjab after outbidding Rajasthan Royals and Kolkata Knight Riders.

In an interview for Gethist Creative channel (Konjam Cricket Konjam Masala show), Varun opened up on his journey. Here are the excerpts:

Question: You have been in the radar of all IPL teams in the upcoming auction after making it big in this year’s TNPL. Despite all this, the biggest mystery is that you are an architect. But, I’m very surprised as to how an architect has made it this big as a professional cricketer. How did this transition come about?

Varun: Ever since I was young, I’ve been playing a lot of tennis ball cricket. Cricket has always been my first love. It’s always been only cricket for me. After completing class 12, I didn’t have time to continue pursuing my passion. There was a lot to study and SRM University was also very far away from my place. After college, I worked for two years before deciding once and for all, to start playing cricket again. Not playing for such a long time made me feel like I was missing something. So, I came back to cricket again. Hopefully, it was good for me.

Question: Coming back to play the game after a seven-year exile like nothing changed. So, in these 7 years, cricket was only an afterthought for you, right? Did you have any ideas of pursuing cricket full time?

Varun: Yeah, cricket was not even in my mind then. I wouldn't watch the big games at that point. Everyone used to wait for the India-Pakistan games. Even India-Pakistan didn’t interest me enough to watch cricket. Only when I started working did I realise that I liked only cricket. Then, I quit my job and started playing cricket again.

Question: So is it right to assume that you liked architecture as much as you liked playing cricket?

Varun: I definitely liked architecture, but I never got the freedom to express my thoughts and ideas in that field. I didn’t feel right about working on that platform. I didn’t get the satisfaction of achieving something how much ever I worked. But, I had this satisfaction even when I was playing lower division cricket. I even had this satisfaction when I was simply bowling in the nets. This satisfaction is what drove me to pursue cricket again. If it was about the money, I could have continued pursuing architecture. So, my calling was different and I chose the other path.

Question: In a way, it has got more to do with your inner self, right? You wanted to do something that gave you that satisfaction.

Varun: Definitely. Because, whenever I used to play cricket, I used to forget all my worries and get lost in the moment. There’s a ground near my house, and we had about 5-6 teams. We’d always be playing tennis-ball cricket. We used to play for close to seven hours every weekend. Throughout the week, I’d wait for the weekend to come so that I could play cricket and forget all the worries I have and get that peace of mind.

Question: Conventionally, 25 is seen to be too old an age to start playing the game. We’ve seen a few outliers here and there like Zaheer Khan, who also started playing when he was 17. But, you would have faced a lot of discouragement, right?

Varun: Definitely. Whenever I used to talk to other people, they used to tell me that I was too old to start at 25. They even used to call me a senior in cricketing circles. I used to feel bad when that used to happen. I used to feel very bad when people would ask me about my age.

Question: Is that why you have shaved off your beard?

Varun: [Laughs] Yeah

Question: You had such a big gap between playing cricket for your school and playing again after you started working. It wouldn’t have been easy to figure out where to start again. Where did you start again?

Varun: After graduating from school, I didn’t play for another 5 years. After I finished college, I was working for two years. I started playing league cricket in these two years. That’s when I spoke to Abdul Jabbar. He told me he was not interested in training players who were over 20 years of age. But, I somehow wanted to do something only related cricket. I told him I’ll bowl for three hours every day to all the batsmen there. I requested him to just have me and told him that I was even ready to pay the fee. That’s how I got back to playing the game.

Question: This went on for a year?

Varun: This actually happened for close to two and a half years. Till I was 25, I was bowling medium pace. Only after that, I decided to change to spin.

Question: Did you bowl to every batsman in the academy weekend after weekend?

CV: Yeah, I bowled to everyone there!

Question: Did you get a chance to play competitive matches?

Varun: Yes, Prabhu Balachander was working there when I went for practice. He plays for RBI. Through him, I also got to play for RBI. So I played for RBI for about two years. Then, I started playing for Magnet CC with the help of a gentleman by the name Kannan. Then, I played for Crombest for about a year. That’s when I injured my knee. After the injury, I started practising spin bowling.

Question: We can actually call this the interval block in your life. Like how in movies, the hero gets inspired and has an epiphany. Your knee getting fractured was probably the turning point in your life too. Why did you choose to become a mystery spinner?

Varun: I used to really enjoy bowling with the tennis ball. I just wanted to keep doing what I did with the tennis ball. I didn’t want to be an orthodox bowler. I knew this would be my last shot and I wanted it to be my best shot.

Question: Were you 26 years old then?

Varun: 25. So, I wanted to give my best. When I was wondering how I could be different from other players, the idea of bowling the same way I did with the tennis ball occurred to me. Then, I practised for about one and half years. Last year, when I was playing fourth division for Jublee CC, I bowled the carrom ball in the last four games of the season. That’s when I took 26 wickets in four matches.

That’s when I realised that this ball would actually work with the cricket ball too. Till then, I didn’t know the carrom ball would work with the cricket ball. I thought it was a bad idea or a taboo. Because I never used to make use of my wrist. I did not bowl the normal finger spin too. It was the finger flicker types. Since no one had bowled it before, I didn’t really think it would prove to be effective.

Question: These are the magical fingers, but it’s interesting. Did it feel like a double life for you? Experiment with the carrom ball while playing with tennis ball and stick to orthodox bowling with the cricket ball

Varun: Yes, that’s how it had been going for a long time. I mustered the courage to bowl the carrom ball only in the last four games of the season. I had to ask permission to bowl that ball from many people. There were many people who helped me during that time. There was a person called Suresh in FSCA. I used to practice the carrom ball in FSCA only. Mohan Kumar also helped a lot during that period. The confidence they gave me only helped me attempt bowling the carrom ball. Then, I started bowling to first division players. I started bowling to Rohith. Through him, I got to know [Baba] Indrajith and Aparajith. So that’s how it came about.

Question: Also, when you were playing in the second division, you were bowling in seam-up style only. Then, you downgraded yourself to fourth division. This is another one of your unconventional moves. Probably the most unconventional move too. Who gave you this idea? What did you base this idea on?

Varun: When I was playing for Crombest, right after I got injured, I decided to try out the carrom ball in a few games. I got a call from 1st division teams too, but it didn’t feel right to directly bowl the carrom ball without any experience in the 1st division or 2nd division. I also used to bat pretty decently then. So, they called me based on that.

When I was confused on what to do, I talked to my coach, Mohan Kumar. He’s like a godfather to me. I told him that I was contemplating moving away from fast bowling. Everyone were shocked that I was suddenly contemplating now after bowling fast bowling all this time. I told him that I was ready to play in the lower divisions to try out the carrom ball. I owe all this success to his constant support and encouragement.

Question: Was this last year?

Varun: This was last year.

Question: Even then, didn’t you have any big aspirations to play at a higher level?

Varun: No, I wasn’t even sure if any team would pick me in TNPL. Because last year’s TNPL was a disaster for me. I didn’t do well at all. I wasn’t expecting any team to pick me this year. That idea didn’t even cross my mind. Only after I was picked and did well for my team did the idea that I could also go big even sink in.

Question: Playing with the cricket ball is a totally different ball game. What were the challenges you faced? I heard that you even twisted your fingers...

Varun: Yeah, it was very painful initially. Because you can bowl gripping the ball very hard with a tennis ball. You can even bend the ball. With the cricket ball, it’s covered with thread and it is not hollow. So, when I applied pressure on the ball, it used to pain incredibly. To the extent that I couldn’t even move my finger. I couldn’t do anything for 3-4 weeks. That was a tough time. Then, only after continuously practising with that ball did I get used to it.

Question: You mentioned that you don’t watch a lot of cricket. Whom did you take inspiration from?

Varun: I actually got to know these mystery spinners only recently. I started following them only before TNPL. Before that, Anil Kumble was my inspiration. Only Anil Kumble used to come to my mind when you mentioned spin. I used to watch his videos all the time. My youtube history is full of Anil Kumble videos. Because he’s also a bit quick through the air. I am also a bit quick through the air. So, Anil Kumble was my inspiration.

Question: You said that last year’s TNPL was a disaster for you. Why?

Varun: Because I didn’t even know what I was doing. What I was doing was also not perfect. I played one match and got out for a duck. I even dropped a catch. There was a lot of criticism.

Question: This was when you were with Karaikudi Kaalais, right?

Varun: Yes, when I was playing for Karaikudi Kaalais, I copped a lot of criticism from my friends. Many people had come that day. I was very excited that I was going to play in a big ground and gave away tickets for about 50 people too. They blasted me after they watched me play.

This year, I didn’t give tickets to anyone for that reason. I knew they would say something. After that incident, I stopped using social media too. Because I didn’t want to get distracted. I was getting a lot of advice and it took me a lot of time to differentiate the good advice from bad advice. So, I decided to just follow the path I had decided to take.

Question: To come back from such a low, you should have had some motivation or some kind of goal to achieve your dream? What motivated you to work more?

Varun: After I watched the entire season of TNPL, I got some clarity of what cricket was all about at this level. That clarity motivated me to work harder. After TNPL, for close to six months, I practised a lot in FSCA. Suresh Sir also helped me a lot. That time was a very grooming period for me. I learned a lot. I also got introduced to people like Dinesh Karthik and all this gave me clarity for this TNPL.

Question: So during this time, you didn’t really work anywhere full-time. How was it dealing with parental pressure?

Varun: At first, it was difficult for them to understand the decision I made. But, once they understood, they haven’t asked me a single question till date. I don’t know if I explained it that convincingly. They haven’t asked me a single question and been supportive all the way. I was actually very guilty that I couldn’t do anything for the family. Even now, I have that guilt. Guilt that I haven’t helped my father and mother. Hopefully, I can live up to their expectations.

Question: You also found a lot of pleasant surprises in this journey, right? For instance, meeting Dinesh Karthik, having a trial with KKR, having trials with CSK. So this has been a big year for you. How did it happen?

Varun: After taking 26 wickets from four games in the 4th division, I came to realise that CSK was coming back again, and would be playing in the nets. I actually planned to bowl to the players in the nets. I asked many people for an opportunity, but I couldn’t get it. Finally, I called TS Mohan sir. I told him that I was only playing 4th division. They usually don’t call a 4th division player to bowl at the nets.

But, somehow he called me. After I went there, there were 20 first division bowlers. But, I was given the ball first, and I bowled first to Bravo. So, maybe my bowling videos started circulating and KKR's video analyst Srikanth called me to Kolkata. I met and talked to DK there. It was very refreshing to meet him. I also met Carl Crowe (Sunil Narine’s coach), Narine, Piyush Chawla, and Kuldeep Yadav. It was very inspiring to meet them.

Question: Also, when you were bowling to Bravo, didn’t you have any kind of stage fear?

Varun: The first two balls I bowled were full tosses straight to his head. Everyone behind me had their hands in their head. Then, I calmed down and bowled.

Question: So, how did you impress when bowling to CSK’s players? Did anyone come and talk to you?

Varun: Bravo talked to me. I also talked to Watson. The man who gave me a lot of advice was Imran Tahir. He took me aside and talked to for an hour. He was telling me about his journey. How much he struggled. It was very moving to listen to his story. He told me that I had the skill to play higher level cricket and asked me to keep working. He told me, “I want to see your progress”. He even gave me his personal contact number. He keeps in touch with me. Very nice of him to do that

Question: And KKR called you for a trial when CSK’s matches were shifted out of Chennai...

Varun: I was upset that there were not going to be any games after the first match. I didn’t even know if I would be called to Pune. For 20 days, I had nothing to do. That’s when KKR called me. Initially, I was called only for three days. I guess they were happy with me and extended my stay to 10 days. It was very refreshing to meet everyone there.

Question: Sunil Narine is a lot like you from a craft perspective. He’s a part of your mystery spinner group. Carl Crowe is his coach. What did you learn from him? Was it more to do with the technical aspects of the game or the other aspects?

Varun: Carl Crowe was mainly trying to condition me mentally. I had never played in the big league before. He was telling me what Sunil Narine used to do and what his lifestyle was and how he trained. It was very helpful.

Question: Could you please tell us a few things you learnt from him?

Varun: Narine visualises the game before it begins. If the ball goes for a six, he has a plan in place for the next ball. There’s a chance it might not occur to you in the match. So it’s better to visualise and prepare before the match itself.

Question: When you talk about visualisation, the “Kathi” scene with actor Vijay holding a map and visualising only comes to my mind. Is it really like that?

Varun: Not literally like that, but there is broadly an idea in place. Based on how the batsman holds his bat, how his bat-angle might impact where he might hit. Based on the combination and perspective, you get an idea.

Question: Could you tell us some of those ideas?

Varun: It’s a lot of guesswork. I kind of form an image for myself and try to follow that. If a batsman hits, I visualise that and analyse where I should bowl for him to miss the ball. That’s the trick.

Question: DK is one cricketer who has been a great mentor too. What did he tell you?

Varun: We spoke to close an hour in a flight once. He told me about focus and how he rediscovered himself while working with Abhishek Nayar. How personal values and fundamentals were very important in life. I hadn’t played TNPL at that point. He told me how to bowl in TNPL, and the lengths to bowl on smaller grounds.

Question: You played for Siechem Madurai Panthers this year. You were touted as a spinner to watch out for at the time of the draft itself. How did you feel about that?

Varun: I knew KB [Arun Karthick] anna. I have bowled to him in the nets. I also knew Thala [Thalaivan Sargunam] anna. I also knew Shijith Chandran, SP Nathan, and Rahil Shah. These seniors might have told someone. I’m very grateful to the Siechem Madurai Panthers management for picking me in the first round.

Question: Did your aspirations go higher then? You had just done well in the TNPL, Imran Tahir was also in touch with you.

Varun: Not really. What everyone told me was I can reach higher levels with this skill. I’m trying to do justice to this skill. If it had been for my personal benefit, I wouldn’t have struggled this hard. I’m a very lazy person. I did this keeping in mind that there was a higher purpose to serve.

Question: One of the higher purposes is the Vijay Hazare trophy which has better cricketers. Even there, you ended up being the second highest wicket-taker. Did you carry the same amount of mystery with you there too or did you take it to another level?

Varun: I made a lot of changes. In the first match against Gujarat, I bowled like I bowled in TNPL. It wasn’t that effective for me. I worked on improving my air speed. After working on that, I took 5 wickets in my next match. The quality is definitely two-three notches higher.

Question: Do you consider the word mystery spinner as a tag, baggage, or a burden?

Varun: I consider myself as just a normal spinner. After the TNPL draft, some newspapers started calling me a mystery spinner. Up to that point, In my mind, I was only a leg spinner.

Question: Despite having a phenomenal TNPL with a great average and economy rate did you really expect to play in two different formats for Tamil Nadu this soon?

Varun: No, I’m very happy about that. Thanks to the selectors for having faith in me. I was only looking at TNPL 4 as the next step. I honestly didn’t expect to get called up this soon.

Question: It’s a very peculiar phenomenon. You neither watched that much cricket nor had such big aspirations to make it big. What do you think helped reach this position today?

Varun: At some point, everyone undergoes self-realization. You’ll know when you reach that point. I had a lot of options – film editing, guitarist, flautist. Cricket was just one of the options. But one key difference is it was in cricket that I saw a lot of failures. Even when I started out as a wicketkeeper in my age-group levels, I have never been selected for the round-robin of any selection. Somewhere someone told me that where there are a lot of failures, there’ll be your biggest success.

Question: Do you still do film editing or play the guitar?

Varun: Definitely. Whenever I’m free, I do that. Even now, I have been editing a short film. I keep doing what I like.

Question: What did you have to change in your lifestyle as a professional cricketer?

Varun: Work ethic, fitness, gymming. It still hasn’t registered that I am a professional cricketer. Right from the diet to hitting the gym, it’s completely different for a professional cricketer. It’s like living a life full of cricket. I’ve to get used to that regimen still.

Question: After the TNPL, many teams will be looking to go big for you in the auctions. Are you aware of that?

Varun: Yes, I am aware of it. I’ll be very happy if some team picks me. If I am a part of a team, I will get to learn from all the superstars. It will be a big opportunity to expand and better my game.

Question: Mumbai Indians called you for the pre-IPL trials. This is the third team you have trialled with. What was the one thing you learned from that trial?

Varun: We were there for just one day. We were given a lot of situations – death-overs situation, Powerplay situation. I realized how much talent we had around the country.

Question: This year has been dizzying for you. Have you thought about how you’ll handle the fame and fortune with an IPL contract if you get one?

Varun: Personally, I don’t think anything is going to change in my life. It’s just a bigger stage and a learning curve. My personal life will remain the same. I’ll still go at night and edit my short films.

Question: Last year, what was the most damning criticism you got that got you to introspect, and who did it come from?

Varun: After the TNPL got over last year, many people called me Zero. Many people called me Zero at that time. I didn’t like it much. But, no one calls me that now.

Question: What was your biggest lesson in these 10 years?

Varun: Just like you said, there’s no said destination. I’m just enjoying the journey.

Question: While many take the conventional route, you seem to enjoy the road not taken. Hopefully, you continue pursuing your passion for architecture, guitar, film editing, and your cricket journey. We hope to see you in the IPL very soon. Thank you so much for talking to us.