@Aadya_Wisden 8 minute read
Tilak Varma enjoyed a breakout season with Mumbai Indians this year, garnering plenty of plaudits from all quarters. He has now broken through to the India A side. Aadya Sharma speaks to the 19-year-old and his long-time coach, tracing his journey so far.
Tilak Varma belongs to the kind who quietly – almost discreetly – gets all the hard work done. Yet to turn 20, he has enjoyed a breakthrough IPL season, played an Under-19 World Cup final, featured in all formats of domestic cricket, and sneaked into discussions about India’s batting future. The boy and the story – we are still only getting to know.
IPL 2022 undoubtedly put him in public spotlight. Here is a technically taut batter, filled to the brim with crisp strokes and the ability to pound the ball on demand, ridiculously easy on the eye, seemingly uncrackable under pressure, eager to express himself with the bat.
The positive approach convinced Mumbai Indians to endorse and back him to play from the very first day. At no point did he feel like a first-timer. It started with captain Rohit Sharma, the favourite bhaiya [elder brother] to all youngsters, greeting him with a warm welcome when he entered the camp as an IPL first-timer this year.
“Seeing him [Rohit] actually in front of me, I got really nervous,” Tilak retells his first meeting, to Wisden India. “Rohit bhai himself came to me, hugged me and said ‘Stay carefree. We are in the same team. There’s no big or small level here. We’re all together. Ask me anything, on cricket or otherwise. Come with us for dinner and lunch.’ He just didn’t act like India captain, he was one of us.”
The nerves evaporated fast, both off and on the field. Nowadays, you see Instagram pictures of Tilak visiting the Sharmas, even playing babysitter to Rohit’s daughter Samaira.
Across those three months, the teenaged Tilak worked his way up the ladder in the richest and most successful IPL team to become a breakout star in a new-look side. “Play your natural game,” was the directive from everyone to the rookie, be it from mentor Sachin Tendulkar or coach Mahela Jayawardene. And he did that handsomely. It might have been a forgettable season for the team, but Tilak, striking at 131, drilled 397 runs at 36, the team’s best tally for the season.
Almost exactly 11 years before his debut IPL game – and a month after India had won the 50-over World Cup – Tilak took his first steps towards competitive cricket. Had his coach Salam Bayash not spotted a 11-year-old Tilak playing tennis-ball cricket in a corner of Hyderabad, our hero might never have known he had wanted to become a cricketer.
“I’d come every Sunday to the Abbas Stadium,” Salam, who coaches at the Legala Cricket Academy, tells Wisden India. It was an off day, so he sat by the steps. And that was when he first spotted Tilak. “He was so young but was playing so beautifully, stepping out, brilliantly pulling the tennis ball. I knew he has something special.”
Salam approached him and asked which academy he played for. “No academy. I study in a public school and practice every Sunday,” came the response.
Salam offered him to join his academy. “I can come, but parents won’t allow it,” said Tilak, echoing the painful plight of many budding Indian cricketers. Salam called Varma Sr. The family were not well off. The financial problems would not enable the Vermas to compromise on Tilak’s education.
“Your son has talent. I will take care of everything – don’t worry about cricket or studies,” Salam assured his parents, even convincing them to shift him from the public school to a friend’s school. “‘Just give him food on time, and don’t let him venture out of the house too much.’ I set his entire timetable and gave it to them.”
Thus began the grind. Clinging onto his coach, Tilak would ride 40 kilometres from Barkas to Lingampally on a motorbike. The day would begin at six, and go on till seven in the evening at the academy. On the evening ride back, a worn-out Tilak would often doze off. “I would be riding less and propping him more. ‘Wake up, Tilak!,’ I’d keep repeating, ‘You’ll fall off…’” Salam reminisces.
To spare Tilak the toil, his family was convinced to shift their base closer to the academy. His father, already on the lookout for work, got a private job as an electrician. “It was as if god had made him to play and reach great heights,” says Salam. “We couldn’t realise our dreams in our time, but we’ll sure work hard and give that to our pupils.”
Tilak did his part, scoring heavily in school tournaments and club games for Brothers XI and Gemini Friends. By January 2015, he had secured a spot in the Hyderabad Under-14s. The following year, he had broken into the Under-16s.
Growing up, he used to be a fan of Suresh Raina, a bustling left-handed middle-order maverick, somewhat like what Tilak has evolved into. Once, ahead of an Under-14 tournament selection, Tilak’s request to obtain IPL tickets was rejected by the coach. It was as a ball-kid that Tilak eventually managed to meet Raina through Salam.
When the meetup happened, Tilak kept looking at Raina, even as the other kids scampered for photographs and autographs. The coach hammered a point right away: “You need to play at this level, to play alongside him someday. I am banking on you to reach IPL and India level. You need to make your parents proud.” A determined Tilak held on to that thought. Perhaps, that was the turning point.
Tilak was prepped to become an all-format player from the start. He started playing Twenty20 as early as 2012 while ensuring no dilution in quality. For the first three months of training, he did not play a single game and only worked on basics. “Adjusting to basics, understanding the game and following what was instructed – these traits were always in Tilak,” explained his coach.
Salam recalls an Under-16 Vijay Merchant Trophy game against Gujarat in 2017. Having faced 70 balls, Tilak was still in his 20s. At the end of the day, Tilak revealed how the bowlers had been teasing him with an outside-off channel, trying to make him play. “I warned him to not come before facing 500 balls,” Salam recalls. He ended up facing 518, and scoring 136.
Selection to the Under-19 team in 2018 was a big stepping stone. Donning the blue India kit, a big motivator. Over the following months, after prolific returns in the Cooch Behar Under-19 and CK Nayudu Under-23 tournaments, he broke through to the Hyderabad senior team. Less than a year later, a chance in the 2020 U19 World Cup in South Africa soon came by.
Tilak was a relatively silent figure at Potchefstroom’s North-West University, where India’s cheerful bunch of youngsters lit up the hallways with their chatter. When his peers were busy playing combat games or texting or updating their Instagram stories, Tilak could be spotted at the table-tennis enclosure, or gently having one-on-one conversations with a teammate. He did not own a phone – and generally preferred to do things his way.
“From the start, my coach was strict,” Tilak says. “He’d say ‘the more you use phones the more addicted you get.’ He always kept a set routine, and it became my habit. At the World Cup, I didn’t carry a phone – would just speak to my parents. I still follow the same routine.”
“There’s no scope for wiling around,” says Salam. “His life was cricket, and it was etched in his mind. Even now, he doesn’t use his phone a lot, maybe two-three days a week; then hands it over to his brother. Media, social media, Facebook, Insta [sic] – we’ve still kept him away from it all.”
Tilak managed 86 runs in three innings at the World Cup. Four of his batchmates got IPL gigs soon afterwards, but Tilak missed out. That was also when he had a reality check.
“You had few chances in the World Cup,” Salam told Tilak. “When you got a chance, you didn’t do too well. In the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, you scored two fifties. If you hope to play the IPL, that won’t do. You need to perform better next year.”
And he did, averaging 36 and striking at 147 in the next edition of the same trophy, on the back of a brilliant 2020/21 Vijay Hazare Trophy, where he averaged 97 and hit two centuries. In February 2022, Tilak Varma bagged an IPL contract worth crores in the auction.
“I didn’t expect such a big amount,” Tilak reveals. “In my mind, I was hoping I’d go to Mumbai Indians. I really like them. At home, they were shocked at the price. They were crying out of happiness. I knew I’d get a gig, but I wasn’t expecting the price.” The hard work and sacrifices had paid off.
Tilak has become fast friends with another Under-19 sensation, his Mumbai Indians teammate from South Africa. “Dewald Brewis,” says Tilak excitedly, when asked about his best friend in the camp. “Everyone knows we’re very close. During quarantine, we’d wake up and get on a call with each other. Breakfast, lunch… we’d do everything together.”
Motorbike trips to cricket academies are all in the past now. Thanks to Mumbai indians, Tilak now has access to even personalised coaches and grounds. Financially, he says he is doing much better. “Even if it rains, I can go practice. Financially, individually and as a player, I am getting a lot of help [from MI]”.
Despite the changes, however, Tilak remains the same youngster from Balapur, disciplined, motivated, and focussed, harbouring dreams of high honours. The goal is to adorn the blue kit and win India a World Cup. With his recent India A call-up, the process to reach the next step is already in motion. Tilak, however, never really wants to change who he truly is.
“I am still the same back home,” he says. “In front of them [parents], how much ever I play, I’d always be a kid. I play good or bad, they’ll keep supporting me.”
That is probably the unconditional prism the world needs to see these youngsters through. Back them, nurture them, and they shall one day bloom.