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Varun Chakravarthy gets ready for his first, best, and only chance

His skills aren't in question, but his fitness is, and the mystery spinner must prove he is finally good to go

Deivarayan Muthu
Varun Chakravarthy has had a roller-coaster of a ride in recent times  •  BCCI

Varun Chakravarthy has had a roller-coaster of a ride in recent times  •  BCCI

Varun Chakravarthy - here we go again! After missing out on selection for the T20I leg of the Australia tour and the home series against England because of fitness issues, the mystery spinner is braced for his international debut, one more time. With the T20I series in Sri Lanka being India's last before the T20 World Cup, this will be Chakravarthy's first - and probably last - chance to stake a claim for the tournament, to be held in the UAE and Oman from October 17 to November 14.
The last time Chakravarthy was in the UAE, he married his variations with control to emerge as the Kolkata Knight Riders' highest wicket-taker, with 17 strikes in 13 matches at an economy rate of 6.84. The national selectors were so impressed that they immediately rewarded him with a place in the T20I side.
Chakravarthy has had a roller-coaster ride since.
He watched his Tamil Nadu mate T Natarajan take his place in the T20I side and make a big splash in Australia. He met his idol, actor Vijay, and got married to his girlfriend Neha during his time away from the game. He then underwent rehab at the National Cricket Academy in Bengaluru, but wasn't deemed fit enough for selection for the T20Is against England. It was then time to prove he was no one-season IPL wonder, fronting up to bowl in the powerplay, middle overs, as well as at the death earlier this year - with or without Sunil Narine. IPL 2021 was later postponed after he was among the people to test positive for Covid-19.
While Chakravarthy has recovered and continues to upgrade his skills - he is working on adding to his seven variations, according to the Knight Riders' spin-bowling coach Carl Crowe, who is now with the Manchester Originals for the Hundred - there might still be question marks over his fitness.
Reacting to Chakravarthy failing a fitness test ahead of the England T20Is, Virat Kohli had stressed that fitness could not be "compromised" in this Indian set-up. There is a school of thought - that Crowe subscribes to - that players like Chakravarthy, who come from a non-professional background, could be given some leeway.
"If you have a cricketer who comes from a low-base background and when he does not have support for fitness growing up in his formative years, I think you give a little bit of leeway as long as you see the fitness level improve as he goes along"
Carl Crowe
"In the modern era of sport, particularly cricket, it is very fitness-driven. You could argue that it's over the line on fitness and I might be in that camp," Crowe tells ESPNcricinfo. "Cricket is a skill sport, but fitness is crucial for maximising performance, longevity and resisting injuries and so many reasons. When you have someone with the high skill level that Varun brings - different shades that he has - it's not made up by extra fitness. If you look at how he's bowled in the last two IPLs.... I think it was a game in Sharjah where he played the previous IPL on a small ground and flat wicket, he went for 24-25 runs in his four overs. Even this time, he got Virat out very quickly against RCB.
"My view is - I'm not in charge of BCCI to tell them to do things at all - if you have a cricketer who comes from a low-base background and when he does not have support for fitness growing up in his formative years, I think you give a little bit of leeway as long as you see the fitness level improve as he goes along.
"I don't think Varun gave much away in the field ever. You don't want too many fielders in the hot spots who can't field out there, he wasn't there; he often fields at 45 to maybe spinners and fine leg to seamers. There was no error that you could put down to fitness. You're bowling four overs, fielding 16 overs and he can hold a bat down the order, so there's nothing to me that suggests that he's probably below the level of acceptability for fitness. At the same time, if the team is trying to drive a culture of fitness, it's difficult to bring in a player who doesn't meet the standards. But for me as long as the player works incredibly hard at fitness and keeps improving and has that skill level, I'd like to see a bit more leniency."
Among Chakravarthy's unique skills is the carrom ball, which he flicks out with his ring finger as opposed to others who bowl the variation with the middle finger. He also has the ability to gather pace off pitches that aren't as quick, something that puts him in the company of the best T20 spinners, according to Crowe.
"I can't certainly say what is more difficult to pick than a standard carrom ball delivered from the middle finger, but what, I think, it does do is it makes the batters around the world looking and guessing what's coming next," Crowe says. "I think I know he's working on at least one more delivery. Once the batter gets better at facing the carrom ball from the middle finger, they now have to be prepared and adapt to face the carrom ball off the ring finger. What matters ultimately is the ball spinning to the left, right, or over the top or underspin and there are obviously different degrees of that. How you go about doing that is up to you as an individual.
"Gathering pace off the pitch for me is what separates the very best spinners from the rest. There's less time for [batters] to adapt and then it spins past the bat quicker. It might look nice on TV - that ball breaking off the pitch - but if it doesn't gather pace, good players will be able to adapt and play with the spin. If you look at the pace that the best T20 spinners bowl at - Rashid [Khan], Narine and like Varun - they are pushing close to 100ks and turning the ball both ways."
Crowe, who has overseen the progress of spinners in various leagues around the world, also believes that the presence of a mystery spinner in a global tournament, like the World Cup, could potentially give India a distinct advantage over the other teams.
"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. 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," he says. "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). I'm really excited to see him play and it [playing for India] means a lot to him.
"I get so many youngsters who contact me via my social media saying: 'Sir, I want to be given a go or have an opportunity by only playing here' and I always come back to Varun. I say this is the man you got to follow and dreams can come true. You play gully cricket, do some net bowling somewhere and be seen - it's a story for all of us to learn and be inspired by."
India's spin attack is already well-stocked with Yuzvendra Chahal, Rahul Chahar, Kuldeep Yadav, Washington Sundar and Krunal Pandya, but they don't quite have that X-factor, which Chakravarthy could bring to the table. If he can pass the test in Sri Lanka, and add another chapter to his fascinating story, who knows what might happen.

Deivarayan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo