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06/09/2023
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Tilak Varma turns heads by combining Hyderabadi artistry with T20 innovation

Tilak Varma was playing for Mumbai Indians against Sunrisers Hyderabad on Tuesday, but he was also a bright young talent from Hyderabad batting in his hometown. It was inevitable, therefore, that something of the city’s cricketing traditions would find expression at some point.

That point arrived in the 16th over of Mumbai’s innings, when Mayank Markande dangled up a wrong’un pitching half a foot outside the left-hander’s leg stump.

Varma glided smoothly to the leg side of the ball, exposing all his stumps, his back foot going so far as to brush the return crease. His front foot remained close to the line of the ball, though, aligning him perfectly to hit with the turn. The rest was down to that most Hyderabadi ingredient: wrists. As the ball arced over extra-cover and into the vacant spaces beyond, Varma could have been a mirror image of Mohammad Azharuddin or VVS Laxman.

This bit of artistry would have been perfectly at home in a Test match, but it was just as much a product of its time and place as the other, more obviously T20-ish bits of innovation that peppered Varma’s batting on the day. He would reverse-heaved Markande over short third almost as soon as he had walked in; not long after that, he had collapsed his back knee to shorten the effective length of a blockhole-seeking delivery from Marco Jansen, and shovelled it just beyond the reach of a leaping long-on fielder.

When Varma came to the crease, Mumbai were going at just under eight an over in the 12th of their innings, and had just lost Ishan Kishan and Suryakumar Yadav in the same over. By the time Varma departed in the 17th for 37 off 17 balls, Mumbai were humming along at just above nine an over, well on course to post a challenging total on a pitch where the slower ball was gripping and not always coming on to the bat.

Cameron Green took the baton from Varma and dominated the finishing stages, ransacking 25 off the last ten balls of his innings to finish unbeaten on 64 off 40. Varma’s innings, however, had allowed Green to get to 39 off 30 without raising too many eyebrows. It wasn’t that he had lacked intent in the early stages of his innings, but simply that he had taken time coming to terms with the two-paced nature of the pitch.

Varma had no such issues. While the rest of Mumbai’s batters scored 59 off 45 balls through the middle overs (seventh to 16th), Varma scored 31 off 15.

Now, anyone can outshine his colleagues in a one-off occasion, but Varma has been Mumbai’s middle-overs mainstay throughout his time with them. Since the start of the 2022 season, his first in the IPL, Varma has scored more middle-overs runs than any other batter in the tournament.

If 479 runs at a strike rate of 137.64 sounds impressive but not earth-shatteringly so, consider this: through IPL 2022 and the early part of IPL 2023, Mumbai have had the worst middle-overs strike rate of any team (122.71). KL Rahul has a similar middle-overs strike rate (137.35) to Varma’s, but he has been part of a Lucknow Super Giants side that has rattled along at 137.61 through that phase.

Varma, in short, has carried a struggling Mumbai line-up through what is often the trickiest phase of a T20 innings. He only turned 20 last November.

As you might expect, his exploits have turned some of the sagest heads in world cricket. Tom Moody, who coached Sunrisers for nine seasons and won the IPL with them in 2016, is one of them.

play

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Watch – Tilak slog sweeps Jansen

Smacked over square leg for six

“He’s an absolute jet, isn’t he? I love watching him bat,” Moody said on the ESPNcricinfo show T20 Time:Out. “He seems to have a head on his shoulders well above his age, he’s got a sense of maturity about how he navigates his innings, he never seems to be flustered, he’s got the shots.

“If he needs to pull the trigger and play a couple of big shots, he’s got that, and does it very comfortably. It’s a bit of an understatement, but he’s got a big career ahead of him, hasn’t he? Not only for Mumbai Indians but for India.”

That’s some endorsement, and Moody wasn’t done just yet.

“I think he’s got a solid technique,” he said. “To me, it looks like he’s got a very good game against pace bowling. So, defensively, he looks very, very much at ease. He’s got a good game both back and front foot against genuine pace, which is what you need to climb the international ladder.

“He’s clearly a very, very good player of spin, which is going to be a reasonably important tool for him, playing the majority of his cricket in this country […] To me, he’s got the complete game.

“Look, I don’t know him at all, I’ve never had a chance to sit down and have a chat with him, but I just sense that he’s a player that seems to have a very good head on his shoulders and understands his own limitations in his own game, and he’s been put into many pressure situations, given Mumbai’s adversity over recent times where he’s been involved, but he seems to have breezed through that with flying colours.

“That’s not the easiest thing to do for a young player, because quite often young players go missing when the leaders of the pack aren’t showing the way, but he’s the one that’s been the leader of the pack during adversity.”

Moody wasn’t alone in predicting a bright future for Varma.

“We watched Tilak last season, and he showed what he can do with the bat, and he’s not looked away from it this year as well,” Mumbai captain Rohit Sharma said at the post-match presentation. “What I like about his game is his approach. He’s not playing the bowler, he’s playing the ball, which is quite important.

“For someone of his age, coming out and playing the way he is, he’s got a long way to go, and we will see him play for some different teams.”

You can be fairly certain Rohit wasn’t talking about Varma playing for another IPL team, or for Hyderabad in domestic cricket.

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