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Varun Chakravarthy’s fairytale deserves a happy ending, but India are right to stand firm on fitness

Varun Chakravarthy fitness
Aadya Sharma by Aadya Sharma
@Aadya_Wisden 4 minute read

The Varun Chakravarthy fairy tale has quickly morphed into a cruel string of false starts. Aadya Sharma looks at another near-miss for the talented spinner, whose dubious fitness standards threaten his future with the Indian team.

It was one of those stories that you couldn’t help but be moved by. Just three seasons ago, Varun Chakravarthy was a virtual nobody, playing fourth division in a Chennai league. Now he’s shot into outside contention for the T20 World Cup after earning his maiden call-up for India in October.

His ‘mystery’ spin had wowed the Tamil Nadu Premier League, and he had received the ultimate stamp for an Indian T20 bowler by enjoying a breakthrough IPL season in 2020. It was an astonishing tale for someone who had left cricket at 17 and taken up architecture as a profession, only to return to the great sport and move his way up the circles in no time.

Enough of the backstory though, for it often comes up whenever Chakravarthy is at the centre of any discussion. As inspiring as the tale has been so far, its current chapter is less rosy, and is threatening to deprive it of a fairytale finish: an India debut.

It’s now the second time in less than a year that Chakravarthy, struggling with his niggly shoulder, has seen the chance to make his India debut disappear in front of him. Chances don’t come around often in Indian cricket, and he sits at a rather precarious stage at 29, with a bevy of younger options waiting for their shot.

Chakravarthy has all the attributes of a promising T20 spinner – besides the array of variations that could well go into double digits, he showed accuracy was also his forte in the 2020 IPL, where his tight lines were difficult to get away. He ended with an economy of 6.84, the fourth-best in the season by any bowler with 15+ wickets. It wasn’t just the thriftiness; game after game, he had systematically sent back the cream of IPL batting, also claiming the only five-for in the season.

But, in this Indian team, skill is closely followed by a key parameter, fitness, and Chakravarthy, even in his short career in top-flight cricket, has often been found on the wrong end. Kings XI Punjab (now Punjab Kings) splurged INR 8.4 crore for him ahead of his debut IPL season, but a finger injury ruled him out after just one game.

Last year, despite a successful season, it emerged that Chakravarthy had reportedly played through a shoulder injury – a labrum tear that didn’t allow him to throw from the deep, and normally requires surgery.

Two months later, another India selection vapourised with the news of another failed fitness test. “What was he doing for the last 3-4 months?” tweeted Hemang Badani, the former India cricketer, pointing out Chakravarthy’s long rehabilitation at the National Cricket Academy. Harsha Bhogle attributed his low fitness standards to a history of amateur cricket, and KKR’s Venky Mysore, the CEO of the IPL team Chakravarthy plays for, reiterated the sentiment about ex-greats, and how fitness standards were never an obstacle for them back in their day.

Reaching India’s levels is tough for any player, but for a player wary of putting a creaky body under too much strain, and who has come from outside the professional set-up, without those formative years of conditioning and training, it’s harder still. For a game that adores its heroes, strugglers often find a soft spot among the public, and Chakravarthy is no different. It’s tempting to wonder if, just this once, the fitness criteria could be waived.

But the current Indian team, under Virat Kohli, is right to be unrelenting. In the past, Yuvraj Singh, Suresh Raina and Ambati Rayudu have all fallen prey to the standards, and the reality is that, under the current regime, it will always hold immense value.

Kohli’s words on the Chakravarthy situation in a recent presser declared a clear, no-nonsense approach:

“Look, individuals need to understand the systems that have been created for the Indian cricket team.

“We should operate at the very high levels of fitness and skills and that’s why this (team) is top of the ladder when playing cricket, in our country. We would expect players to abide by what’s required to be a part of Team India. There shouldn’t be space for any compromise, in that regard.”

More than being about being able to run fast or throw far, this is about culture, one that has reaped India long-lasting rewards, specifically within the bowling unit.

There’s no doubt that more than anyone, Chakravarthy will be gutted by the turn of events.  It would have taken tremendous dedication and hard work to make his name in the sport from scratch, and his skills are undoubtedly valuable to the current team. But there’s little room to circumvent the fitness angle – with less than six months to go for the T20 World Cup, a side can’t possibly invest in a new recruit if there’s a high chance he’ll break down in the lead-up.

The public should back Chakravarthy in this tough hour, and he does need all their support. But the reality sits in India’s yo-yo benchmarks, recently bumped to 17:1, along with the timed 2k run. Until he clears them, the second half of Chakravarthy’s incredible story will feel incomplete.

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