"I never thought cricket would come back into my life. Even when I left cricket, cricket didn't leave me and just came back to me."
Varun Chakravarthy's emotional journey back into cricket could make a good script for a Tamil movie. He made two unsuccessful attempts to be a professional cricketer - injuries forced him to rethink both times - and he was nearly lost to the game when he pursued a bachelor's degree in Architecture.
At 23, construction and sustainability of a cricket stadium was part of his thesis to obtain his degree. At 26, he began working at an architectural firm doing fieldwork, surveys and finalising project blueprints. Today, he prepares blueprints for the Kolkata Knight Riders in the middle overs of an IPL game. So far, he has held his own - conceding at a more-than-acceptable 7.45 runs an over in the six games he has played.
"Life was okay, I got a decent pay but there was no job satisfaction," Chakravarthy tells ESPNcricinfo as he looks back at the bold step he took in 2016. He informed his bosses of the decision to quit, without really knowing how he would re-ignite a cricket career, which seemed to have hit a dead end.
Until then, he used to play on-and-off during the weekends, but the fear of having only a vague goal - "I should somehow play cricket again" - got him thinking. He needed a plan, and that the first step towards that was giving up fast bowling and taking up offspin. "Whenever you need something, you have to go and get it," he says. "Nothing is going to come to you."
For Chakravarthy, that 'go get it' moment came when he met Malolan Rangarajan again, more than a decade after they first bumped into each other in 2005-06 as trainees at the MAC Spin Foundation in Chennai.
Incidentally, in the UAE, both Rangarajan, a fielding coach and talent scout now, and Chakravarthy were in opposite camps when the Royal Challengers Bangalore played the Knight Riders in IPL 2020.
While Rangarajan went on to become part of Tamil Nadu's junior cricket set-up and then made his first-class debut in 2011, Chakravarthy, who tried his hand first at fast bowling and then wicketkeeping, put his cricket aspirations on hold and joined architecture school.
So how did they meet again? In 2015, Rangarajan rang up a friend to request for a few net bowlers for a personal session where he bumped into Chakravarthy again. He was no more a fast bowler but a mystery spinner. Rangarajan got him to enrol for the Tamil Nadu Premier League draft, where he was picked up by Karakudi Kaalai. In 2018, he moved to Madurai Panthers, where he started his tryst with mystery spin.
In 2018, Rangarajan helped facilitate Chakravarthy's entry into Chennai's robust first-division league by signing for Vijay CC, a prestigious club that has Rahul Dravid among its alumni. The rise up the ranks was swift.
The confidence of having bowled at the Knight Riders nets in 2018 helped, he says. "I got to meet Sunil Narine, Kuldeep Yadav and Piyush Chawla, and learnt many things. They've all proved themselves over and over again."
Two months of net bowling and a TNPL stint later, he found himself picked by the Kings XI Punjab in the 2019 IPL auction. For a whopping INR 8.4 crore ($1.17 million approx.), but not before the Kings XI had to ward off aggressive bids from the Knight Riders. The dream, however, lasted all of one game. A forgettable debut in which he was taken for 25 runs by Narine in his first over was followed by a flight back home because of a finger injury. He didn't play for another year nearly.
"It was very frustrating," he says of the time spent in the wilderness. "I had prepared well but things didn't go well. After the injury, my recovery was frustrating. I didn't know if I'd be okay, I didn't know if there'd be cricket ahead of me, it was a serious injury so I was in the dark. I was very aloof."
The lack of cricket didn't dissuade the Knight Riders from bidding for him, and it came as no surprise that Rangarajan was at the next table, bidding fiercely on behalf of the Royal Challengers, for whom he was a talent scout. In a see-saw battle, the Royal Challengers went up to INR 3.8 crore from his base price of INR 20 lakh, before the Knight Riders eventually got him for INR 4 crore ($563,000 approx.).
"KKR picking me was a surprise because I hadn't played because of injuries," he says. "That gave me confidence." Chakravarthy was now going to play under Dinesh Karthik, someone he had tried to copy all those years ago as a schoolboy. "Indirectly, Dinesh Karthik has shaped my journey from before. I took up wicketkeeping because of DK. That style, that grace, style - I loved that. But I had no contact with him at that time. It was only many years later that I met him [around 2017] at Chepauk, and then the following season he got me to the KKR nets."
After nearly a year of no cricket, he trained for two months in Mumbai under Abhishek Nayar, the Knight Riders' talent scout, before lockdown began. A debut for the franchise came sooner than he may have expected, and he hasn't looked back since. Now, with Narine's action under the scanner, Chakravarthy's variety lends balance to the Knight Riders.
Along the way, he has ticked off a few boxes too. Before the season, he marked out MS Dhoni's wicket as a dream scalp. He managed to clean bowl him with a googly when the two sides met. "It was quite a moment," Chakravarthy says. "After the game, I went up to him for a photo. He posed for it and said 'well played'.
"It was special. I've seen him from the stands. CSK used to throw open the stands for net sessions, and I used to watch him from the galleries. The next year, I bowled to him in the CSK nets at Chepauk. Now, playing against him was incredible. Thala, thala dhaan (Chief will always be the chief)."
All this, of course, has given him confidence. But he still feels strange talking to Karthik on the field. "Really strange," he says. "DK bhai talks to me like a normal friend and I am awestruck. It's still very surreal, still I go and talk. He says don't be hesitant, talk freely. He really drops bombshells of knowledge. You have to be smart enough to pick it up. It's been a great journey, a dream journey for me."
Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo