Tilak Varma is a bright spot in Mumbai Indians' dark season
The 19-year-old batter's early coaches talk about the dedication and maturity he brings to his game
At 19, Tilak Varma is truly part of the IPL generation.
He was five years old when the tournament began, and his love for it grew when his home team, Deccan Chargers, won the title a year later in 2009. For the son of an electrician father and homemaker mother, Varma's Rs 1.7 crore (US$226,000 approx) contract with Mumbai Indians is the stuff of dreams.
Varma wants to build a comfortable house for him family, but his first coach, Salam Bayash only reaffirms one thing to him these days: "Keep learning, don't stop 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 payoff. His father, Nagaraju, couldn't afford to send him to a private academy for cricket coaching, and if Bayash - who Nagaraju describes as his son's godfather - hadn't insisted on taking care of his fees and equipment needs, Varma may have been lost to the game, like many others in similar circumstances.
Sitting pillion behind Bayash on a scooter, Varma would travel about 80km to and from his home in Chandrayan Gutta, in the Old City in Hyderabad, to the suburb of Lingampally six days a week for coaching.
Bayash had been running his cricket academy for a few years when he first came across Varma. What impressed him about the boy, he says, was "the punch in his batting".
"When kids play with the tennis ball, they generally tend to slog, heave, play cross-batted shots. This boy was playing authentic shots. Clean shots.
"I asked him if he was being coached. He said, 'No sir, we have financial constraints.' His maturity to understand his family's difficulties was striking for me. That convinced me to speak to his parents. Today, they are so happy with the decision to send him [for coaching]."
Varma's flair and temperament have come in for special praise from former batting greats like Sunil Gavaskar and Matthew Hayden. Against Rajasthan Royals, he reverse swept an in-form R Ashwin for six and then got out trying to sweep him off the next ball.
Mumbai Indians scouts happened to watch him multiple times at the Syed Mushtaq Ali T20 Trophy last November, and were impressed with how Varma played alongside his captain Tanmay Agarwal, scoring a 32-ball 37 in Hyderabad's successful chase of 171 against Delhi.
In the quarter-final, against Gujarat, Varma smashed five fours and two sixes in a 50-ball 75 to set up a 30-run win. Mumbai decided then to keep an eye on Varma's performances, and were one of four franchises to call him for trials ahead of the auction.
"Before the auction, scouts always like to know something about a player from coaches," says Milap Mewada, Hyderabad's head coach.
"They [Mumbai's scouts] asked me about Tilak. I told them he was a very good kid with a mature head on his shoulders, someone who can be adept at hitting big sixes, convincing sixes.
"At the same time, he can knuckle down and play a solid game also if the situation demands. He can put the ball into the second tier effortlessly. The moment he hits the ball, you know if it'll clear the ropes or not. There are no half-measures."
During the domestic white-ball season, Mewada and Varma worked on having different scoring options for the same kind of delivery, so he could build the ability to access different parts of the ground.
"You must have seen him try and ramp bouncers instead of pulling or hooking," Mewada says. "Or trying to use the angle and pace to pick gaps behind the wicket to wide yorkers as against trying to swing across the line. Those are things we did during the white-ball season.
"Another thing I spoke to him about, based on where his game is at currently, was that it would be best for him to bat at four instead of at the top. He bought into the idea. He didn't know then that he'd be picked by Mumbai or that he'll be batting at five for them. But in a way, it has all worked out well."
Bayash remembers Varma's dedication towards improving his skills. A friend of the coach at the Hyderabad Cricket Association had arranged for Varma to be on ball-boy duties in 2014.
"Next day, he came and told me, 'I want to bat like Suresh Raina. Woh upper wala shot khelna hai [I want to play the upper shot like Raina].'
"He kept practising that inside-out shot over cover," Bayash remembers. "His father told me how the next day he was up at 4am and shadow-practising that Raina shot. If he sets his eye on something, he'll ensure he ticks that off and then goes to the next thing."
He's still a teen but Varma is already a key member of Hyderabad's set-up across formats. An early initiation into the IPL with the five-time champions only brings with it the promise of bigger things.
Bayash and Mewada, who have been in touch with Varma during the IPL, are united in the advice they offer: keep enjoying the game without feeling the pressure of having to live up to expectations now you have got some recognition.
It's what his Mumbai Indians captain Rohit Sharma seems to have told Varma too.
"Rohit bhai keeps telling me: 'Don't take pressure in any situation,'" Varma said in an interview with the Mumbai Indians website. "'Keep enjoying and playing the way you do. You're a youngster, this is the time to enjoy. If you lose that, it [these days] won't come back.'
"He [Rohit] always backs me in everything, whether it's fielding, bowling, or batting, now and in the future too," Varma says.
"Mumbai are in a downward phase right now, we're playing well but falling short due to a few errors. Even in this situation, he keeps telling me not to lose that enjoyment factor, and it feels nice when he tells me that. It's always on my mind and it's working well for me."
Those around Varma describe him as a "happy kid" who enjoys spending time with friends when not on the field.
"When he's at the ground, he is always thinking of ways to contribute," Bayash says.
Mewada says Varma's lively persona has infused positivity and cheer into the Hyderabad team environment. "He's very soft-spoken off the field and very serious when he's batting. And sometimes while fielding also, he'll be so intense about batting that you have to tell him to take it easy," Mewada says. "But as a person, he's polite, grounded, coachable. Has a great attitude to learn.
"He'll keep joking, mingles well with seniors and juniors - they're all fond of him. The seniors will mimic him, and he'll take [the teasing] sportingly. He's basically a friend of all.
"Two players in the team are like that always: Tilak and Mohammed Siraj. Jolly fellows, very grounded. If he [Varma] stays like this, he's going to do wonderful things."
Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo