In 2018, Varun Chakravarthy had his first taste of the IPL as a net bowler at Chennai Super Kings in Chepauk. Varun was only playing fourth-division cricket in Chennai then, but there was something about him. He turned the ball both ways at high pace and troubled almost all the CSK batters, including MS Dhoni, at the nets.
Five years on, in his first IPL game against CSK at Chepauk, Kolkata Knight Riders' Varun out-spun CSK's spinners and kept KKR in contention for the playoffs. When Varun bowled at the CSK nets, his stock ball was the googly and he would mix it up with sliders and carrom balls. He now has his legbreak to turn sharply and has become a more versatile spinner.
According to ESPNcricinfo's logs, the legbreak has been responsible for nine of his 19 wickets this season. After a rough IPL 2022, where he managed just six wickets in 11 games and was benched, Varun spent a lot of time nailing the legbreak with Abhishek Nayar, the KKR assistant coach, at the franchise's academy as well as with AC Prathiban, the former Tamil Nadu offspinner, who had also worked with Varun at Madurai Panthers in the Tamil Nadu Premier League.
In the past, Varun used to bowl legbreaks with a cross-seam or a scrambled-seam. In IPL 2023, he has got his legbreaks to turn more by bowling with an upright seam and giving more revs on the ball. The legbreak, which he bowls from the back of the hand like Rashid Khan, has made his other variations even more potent.
With the Chepauk pitch gripping from the get-go, Nitish Rana handed the new-ish ball to Varun. The spinner's first ball was a googly, which Ruturaj Gaikwad seemingly picked and swept for four. Two balls later, Varun tossed a legbreak up, which broke away from Gaikwad, drawing a thick outside edge to short third.
Varun returned to the attack after the powerplay and challenged Devon Conway with bounce. He pinged Conway's pad with a topspinner that went straight on, but extra bounce meant the ball was going over the stumps. Ajinkya Rahane then charged at Varun, looking for a straight six, but Varun dragged a legbreak away from his reach and had him sending a catch to long-off.
The two strikes set CSK up for a boundary-less sequence of almost seven overs.
"Yes, I've been working on my legspin this season, so hopefully it's going well," Varun said after the game. "Last season, I used to bowl cross-seam legspin, but it was not gripping that much, so I thought of mixing up the seam one and cross-seam one. So it's definitely creating more doubt for the batsman."
He conceded 15 off his last over, the 18th of CSK's innings, but it was still a decent over. He even dipped into his offbreaks, but Shivam Dube, CSK's designated spin hitter, dared to mow him against the turn over midwicket for six.
"It still hurts us, that. He tortured [CSK's batters] in the nets for a number of years, but with the auction and the way it is, we couldn't retain him"
Varun's growth from a net bowler at CSK to one of the mainstays of KKR's attack has left Stephen Fleming impressed as well.
"It still hurts us, that [missing out on Varun]. He tortured [CSK's batters] in the nets for a number of years, but with the auction and the way it is, we couldn't retain him," the CSK head coach said. "And the thing is with the Tamil Nadu players all around the different teams, they knew about him as well and we were unable to keep him a secret. But we were very excited by him as a talent when he bowled against us in the nets and he went for a big price that first year.
"He went off a little bit and now he has come back. He had some injuries and now he looks fit. He bowled very well today and he's a weapon. When you have [Sunil] Narine and him operating, they're a very potent combo in the right conditions. Probably at Kolkata, they don't get the most favourable conditions to bowl on, so coming to conditions like this, they excel."
With Narine having his leanest full IPL season yet, in terms of both wickets and economy rate, Varun has fronted up to do the job that Narine used to do - bowl the difficult overs. Varun's economy rate of 8.82 between overs 16 and 20 is the second best among spinners, behind Yuzvendra Chahal, and fourth best overall this IPL among bowlers who have bowled at least 50 balls during this phase. In the powerplay, only six spinners have bowled at least 50 balls this season and among them, Varun is the highest wicket-taker, with five.
Nayar put Varun's success down to his hard work at the KKR academy during the off-season and in the lead-up to the IPL season.
"After last season, we discussed quite a bit on what we thought went wrong and also I think when you play season after season, teams tend to target you differently," Nayar said at the press conference. "One of things we tried to do throughout the off-season and throughout the season was to understand the challenges we were going to face. There is a stark difference in terms of how he's using his deliveries - using the one that goes away [legbreak] a lot more than he was doing last year.
"So, a lot of work went in not just technically and tactically but also understanding his mindset in terms of understanding how individuals are going to target him. I think last year when he didn't have a great season, the ways in which every team was targeting him and certain areas where they constantly hit him. I think once we analysed and understood that, we obviously spoke about getting revs on the ball and getting more bounce and speed off the pitch… but also understanding which areas teams are going to target him.
"We played at Eden Gardens, a smaller ground, where it is tougher for a bowler, and last time we were in Mumbai. Yes, he has been challenged, but a lot of hard work he has put in at the [KKR] academy over the whole season and not just prior to the IPL season. That has helped him in his preparation and in terms of clarity how he's going to target each batsman or how he's going to be targeted by each batsman."
When CSK had started their pre-game warm-ups, the Chepauk DJ was belting out plenty of songs of popular Tamil actor Vijay to rouse the crowd. It must've been a strange feeling for Varun, who is a huge fan of Vijay and who was the only Chennai boy in the two XIs on Sunday.
After Varun's mid-innings interview, the DJ played out Vijay's Top tucker from the movie Sarkar. It probably wasn't intended for Varun, but it was indeed another top spell from him.