Deivarayan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo
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"Va va va va (come on, come on) Varunnnnnn. Avanukku theriyala nee yenna podra nu (he doesn't know what you are bowling)"
This chant from Kolkata Knight Riders' Dinesh Karthik has become all too familiar in the IPL, aptly summing up what Varun Chakravarthy brings: mystery. It isn't just limited to his bowling, which we will get to later. Varun grew up wanting to be the next big wicketkeeper-batter from Tamil Nadu or in other words, he wanted to be the next Karthik. After facing multiple rejections, he ditched cricket for architecture. Around the same time, he took a crack at acting in Tamil cinema. He even edited short films and videos.
He then fell in love with cricket again, so much that he gave up architecture and became a medium-pacer. Injuries, however, struck him down. So, he brought out the sodukku (carrom) ball from the streets of Chennai, and experimented with spin. He demoted himself to lower-division cricket in the city and kept adding one variation after another to his repertoire. Varun's evolution into a mystery spinner might have been accidental, his shoulder and knees might still be creaky, but his X-factor could be central to India's T20 World Cup plans in the UAE.
You can't play Varun off the pitch, as he darts the ball into the track and gets it to fizz off it, giving you no time to adjust. The bigger boundaries in Abu Dhabi and Dubai - and the re-laid pitches in Sharjah - will only amplify the threat posed by Varun. In 23 T20s in the UAE, he has picked up 28 wickets at an average of 20.89 and economy rate of 6.35. In comparison in India, although the sample size is much smaller, Varun has eight wickets in as many matches, with his economy rate jumping to 8.19 an over.
During a recent chat with Andre Russell on IPLt20.com, Varun said: "I'm starting to like this ground [Abu Dhabi] a lot. It's just fun bowling here and it's a good challenge because more flat wickets kind of suit me. I don't like the turning wickets like Chennai, I like flat wickets, so it suits me more."
Russell was surprised with Varun's comments, saying, "you've the first spin bowler I've heard say that you don't like turners". Varun, however, isn't your traditional spin bowler. He had been fed with a steady diet of 18-yard tennis ball cricket and, in a way, he's a bit like a medium-pacer who bangs it away on an in-between length at around 100kph and subtly turns the ball both ways at that pace.
The non-turners in the UAE did suit Varun's style of bowling to a T in the second leg of IPL 2021. He conceded less than seven an over in every game in the UAE this season until the final, when he ran into Chennai Super Kings' Moeen Ali, one of the best spin-hitters in the world. Also: Varun can bowl at the death, unlike most other spinners. His economy rate at the death over the past two IPL seasons (8.76) is the fifth best among bowlers who have bowled at least 75 balls during this phase.
In India's most recent warm-up fixture against Australia, Varun was held back until the 16th over. He did a decent job, coming away with 23 from his two overs, despite a triptych of boundaries from Marcus Stoinis.
Rahul Chahar is also an in-to-the-pitch spinner who can turn the ball both ways, and R Ashwin can be a favourable option against left-hander heavy batting line-ups, but Varun's all-sorts could prove to be a potent point of difference in India's attack. Varun was working on an eighth variation ahead of the second chunk of the IPL, but seemingly didn't unleash it there. Will he give it a go at this T20 World Cup?
"In my experience at the IPL, the Indian players - they play mystery spin and any kind of spin the best and the overseas players not quite so much," Carl Crowe, Knight Riders' spin-bowling coach, had said in the lead-up to Varun's T20I debut in Sri Lanka. "Some of them like Jos Buttler play them well individually, but not across the board; the overseas players aren't quite as skilled against mystery spin. You think about a World Cup, where non-Indian players play against a mystery spinner… there might be a few sleepless nights for the batters, trying to see which way the ball is spinning (laughs)."
Only four years ago, Varun had made his TNPL debut, as a lower-order batter, in Chennai. He had invited a gang of friends to watch him in action at Chepauk on that day, but his debut turned out to be so dreadful that they ended up ridiculing him. On Sunday, all eyes will be on Varun as he could potentially make his World Cup debut, against Pakistan, as India's frontline spinner along with Ravindra Jadeja. That would be quite a transformation.