IPL 2022 – Tilak Varma is a bright spot in Mumbai Indians’ dark season

At 19 years old, Tilak Varma is truly part of the IPL generation.

He was five years old when the tournament started, and his love for it grew when his local team, Deccan Chargers, won the title a year later in 2009. For the son of an electrician father and a stay-at-home mom, Rs 1.7 crore de Varma (US$226,000 approx) contract with Mumbai Indians is a dream come true.

Varma wants to build a comfortable home for his family, but his first coach, Salam Bayash, only reaffirms one thing to him these days: ‘Keep learning, keep improving and don’t take anything for granted’.

Varma’s journey mirrors the struggle of a typical lower-middle-class household in India, but with a dream reward. His father, Nagaraju, couldn’t afford to send him to a private academy for cricket training, and if Bayash – whom Nagaraju describes as his son’s godfather – hadn’t insisted on taking care of expenses and equipment needs, Varma might have been lost at the game, like many others in similar circumstances.

Sitting behind Bayash on a scooter, Varma traveled around 80 km to and from his home in Chandrayan Gutta, in the old city of Hyderabad, to the suburb of Lingampally six days a week for training.

Bayash had been running his cricket academy for a few years when he first met Varma. What impressed him about the boy, he says, was “the punch in his stick”.

“When kids play with the tennis ball, they usually tend to bump, lift, play cross shots. This boy was playing authentic shots. Clean shots.

“I asked him if he was coached. He said, ‘No sir, we have financial constraints. His maturity in understanding the difficulties of his family struck me. That convinced me to talk to his parents. Today they are so happy with the decision to send it [for coaching].”

Varma’s flair and temperament were particularly appreciated by former great hitters like Sunil Gavaskar and Matthew Hayden. Against the Rajasthan Royals, he the reverse swept an in-form R Ashwin for six then came out trying to sweep it to the next ball.

The Mumbai Indians scouts saw him several times at the Syed Mushtaq Ali T20 Trophy last November and were impressed with the way Varma played alongside his captain Tanmay Agarwal, scoring a 32-ball 37 in Hyderabad’s successful chase of 171 against Delhi.

In the quarterfinal, against Gujarat, Varma broke five fours and two sixes in a 50-ball 75 to set up a 30-point victory. Mumbai then decided to keep an eye on Varma’s performance and was one of four franchises to call him for pre-auction trials.

“Before the auction, scouts always like to know something about a player from the coaches,” explains Milap MewadaHyderabad head coach.

“They [Mumbai’s scouts] asked me about Tilak. I told them he was a very good lad with a mature head on his shoulders, someone who can be adept at hitting big sixes, convincing sixes.

“At the same time, he can get down and play a solid game even if the situation calls for it. He can put the ball in the second tier effortlessly. The moment he kicks the ball, you know if he’ll clear the balls. strings or not. There are no half measures.”

During the national white ball season, Mewada and Varma worked on different scoring options for the same type of delivery, so he could develop the ability to access different parts of the court.

“You must have seen him trying to blast bouncers instead of shooting or hooking,” Mewada says. “Or trying to use angle and pace to create gaps behind the wicket on wide Yorkers rather than trying to cross the line. Those are things we did in the white ball season.

“Another thing I talked to him about, based on the current state of his game, is that it would be better for him to hit fours rather than tops. He bought into the idea. He didn’t know then that he would be picked by Mumbai or hit five for them, but somehow it all worked out.

Bayash recalls Varma’s dedication to improving his skills. A friend of the Hyderabad Cricket Association coach had arranged for Varma to take over as ball boy in 2014.

“The next day he came and said to me, ‘I want to beat like Suresh Raina. Oh upper wow shoot khelna hai [I want to play the upper shot like Raina].’

“He kept practicing that inside-out shot on the cover,” Bayash recalled. “His dad told me that the next day he got up at 4am and was practicing what Raina was shooting. If he sets his eye on something, he’ll make sure to tick it off and pass then to the next thing.”

He’s still a teenager but Varma is already a key member of Hyderabad’s setup in all formats. An early initiation into the IPL with the five-time champions only brings the promise of greater things.

Bayash and Mewada, who have been in contact with Varma during the IPL, are united in their advice: keep enjoying the game without feeling the pressure of having to live up to expectations now that you have some recognition.

That’s what his Mumbai Indians captain Rohit Sharma also seems to have told Varma.

“Rohit bay keeps telling me, ‘Don’t take pressure in any situation,’ Varma said in an interview with the Mumbai Indians website. ““Keep having fun and playing the way you do. You’re a youngster, it’s time to take advantage. If you lose this, it [these days] will not come back.’

“He [Rohit] always supports me in everything, be it field, bowling or batting, now and in the future as well,” says Varma.

“Mumbai is in a downswing at the moment, we’re playing well but we’re failing because of a few mistakes. Even in this situation, he keeps telling me not to lose that fun factor, and that feels good. when he tells me. It’s always in my head and it works well for me.”

Varma’s entourage describes him as a “happy kid” who enjoys spending time with his friends when he’s not on the pitch.

“When he’s on the pitch, he always thinks of ways to contribute,” Bayash says.

Mewada says Varma’s lively personality has instilled positivity and joy in the Hyderabad team environment. “He’s very soft-spoken off the pitch and very serious when he’s at bat. And sometimes on the pitch, too, he’ll be so intense at bat that you have to tell him to calm down,” Mewada said. “But as a person he’s polished, grounded, coachable. Has a great attitude to learn.

“He will keep joking around, mixes well with seniors and juniors – they all love him. Seniors will emulate him and he will take [the teasing] sportingly. He is basically everyone’s friend.

“Two players in the team are always like that: Tilak and Mohammed Siraj. Cheerful guys, very grounded. If he [Varma] stay like that, he’s going to do wonderful things.”

Shashank Kishore is Senior Deputy Editor at ESPNcricinfo

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