Every time the Mumbai Indians raise their paddle for a youngster at an auction, it drives fans and critics alike to the edge of their seats. There is an impression that the scouting team of the 5-time champions has created for itself over the years– that from the half a dozen fresh faces that join their camp each season, a Hardik Pandya or Jasprit Bumrah may emerge.
This year, that moment transpired when Akash Ambani lifted the mace to bid for a 19-year-old left-handed batter from Hyderabad whose name was fresh and unknown to most. At the end of a lengthy bidding war, however, when the camera turned its focus onto the smiles and handshakes at the MI table, a name that had so far remained in the shadows suddenly shot to the mainstream– “Tilak Varma, for 1.7cr, sold to the Mumbai Indians.”
Varma’s IPL career has gotten off to a tremendous start, with his performance being one of the only few positive takeaways in the Mumbai Indians’ winless campaign so far. But to arrive at this exciting junction, he has had to navigate an adequate share of potholes and speed bumps.
The story traces back to 2014, when Varma, still a year shy of teenage, accompanied his coach, Salam Bayash, to an IPL match between Sunrisers Hyderabad and Chennai Super Kings. Struck with awe watching Suresh Raina bat in his prime and chancing upon a short interaction with him, the 12-year-old Varma, his coach recollects, started to grow convinced that he too wants to pursue cricket at that level.
Bayash had roped Varma into his academy after catching a glimpse of him playing with the tennis ball. Although his family did not have the financial means to support his cricketing dreams, they backed him in every way they could. “My father never says no to anything. He used to say that it will happen, but due to lack of money, he could not afford many things,” Varma said in an interview with IANS.
He mentioned that they just about managed to pay for his training, and even bought him a fairly expensive SS bat. The bat relented in no time, but the investment they had made in Bayash’s ambition for their child ensured that the broken bat and their brittle pockets did not come in the way of his dreams.
Using a spare bat handed to him by his coach, Varma went on to excel in U14 as well as U16 competitions for his state, finishing among the top run-getters at both levels. Sighting his prolific performances at that age, SS jumped into sponsor a 16-year-old Varma, reuniting him with the brand whose broken bat may have created a hole in his pockets as well as goals a few years earlier.
No wonder, Varma gave a bulk of the credit for his selection in the IPL to Bayash and his unrelenting support. “It’s fine if you do not write about me but Salam sir should definitely get a mention. He bought me cricket gear and took care of my expenses. It’s all because of him and my family’s support that I reached this stage,” he remarked in an interview with the Mumbai Indians shortly after being bought at the auction.
Finally, he had overcome a few decisive hurdles and arrived at a crossroad. His name was drafted into the squad for the 2020 U19 World Cup on the back of a promising domestic season in 2019. He scored 86 runs in 3 innings at an average of 28.7 in the ICC event. The numbers read decently, especially when you consider that he featured in all the games that India played but only got the chance to bat 3 times, for in the remainder of the games, India did not lose a single wicket. Yet, it is clear that he had not exactly set the stage on fire in the same way that the likes of Yashasvi Jaiswal and Ravi Bishnoi had. Or, at the very least, generated the kind of interest among IPL franchises that they had.
As Varma moved forward from that experience, he registered noteworthy performances upon being given opportunities in the domestic circuit. With an average of 52.2 in 16 List A games and 215 runs at a strike rate of 147.3 in the 2021 Syed Mushtaq Ali trophy, he had shown that he had the potential to excel at a higher level.
Hyderabad’s untimely exit from both tournaments last year, coupled with the sheer volume of youngsters that make waves in the domestic circuit year in and year out, meant that his performances largely got buried in the limelight that the Shahrukh Khans and Deepak Hoodas had achieved for their stand out seasons. However, they did not slip under the radar of the many IPL teams that were on a deep-rooted quest for young talent.
With 2 new teams added, scouting for fresh and promising domestic talent to ensure that the increased demand meets adept supply was more important than ever this season. This, in tandem with his consistent display of his unorthodox yet stylish approach against the white-ball, which yielded him an impressive strike rate of 145+ in T20s, meant that he had surpassed another hurdle, and reached yet another crossroad– this one, in the cauldron that is the mega-auction.
The video of the uproar that his selection by MI created among his friends and him went viral on social media instantly. And it was not only the Mumbai Indians and the Chennai Super Kings, but even Sunrisers Hyderabad, his native franchise, and the Rajasthan Royals that engaged in a passionate back-and-forth for his services. In Rajasthan’s video series about their auction strategies, you could observe their think tank speaking highly of his versatility and scheming to bag him on the big day.
After the auction ended, Harsha Bhogle, on the Cricbuzz Live review of the event, mentioned how Parthiv Patel, an active member of the MI scouting team, was excited about their acquisition of the 19-year-old, and were likely to hand him a cap from the get go.
And they did.
He was drafted into the playing XI immediately. And in the 3 games that he has played in the Blue and Gold this season, he has already proven why his previously uncharted name had drawn such enthusiastic bidding. He has backed up the faith reposed in him by the MI management with the “orthodox yet stylish approach” that brought him here, with 121 runs in 3 outings at a strike rate of 161.3, and a repertoire of scintillating shots. He has also demonstrated great adaptability, a virtue that instantly makes a youngster’s stock rise exponentially, by batting at 4 and 5 in the MI jersey despite being a top-order batter for his state.
Realizing his dream of playing for an IPL franchise he grew up loving and establishing his name in the circuit have led him to attain the limelight that had been evading him all these years. But the dream does not end here. Since joining the Mumbai Indians, Varma has not only added many a feather to his cap, but also a few exciting goals to his list. While he is looking forward to working resolutely towards helping MI succeed this season and fulfilling representing India in the blue as well as white uniforms, he is hoping to utilize the money he earns from this season towards helping his family buy their first house.
The 19-year-old shares an amicable relationship with his parents, whose lives have changed just as much as his since his upshoot. “As soon as I got selected for Mumbai Indians, I made a video call to my parents,” Varma told IANS after the auctions. “They were very happy, but unable to say anything; tears were rolling down their eyes. Papa was unable to talk at all.”
“We just encourage him, and pray for his success,” Varma’s father said on MI TV after finishing his quarantine ahead of his debut match. And this sentiment was elevated when they joined the MI bubble in March, and held their head high as they sat at the stadium and watched their son play in the IPL for the first time.
Neither is his intent checkered by the number he bats at, nor is his confidence throttled by the name or label of the bowling running in. And his scores of 22 (15), 61 (33), and 38* (27), which include a stylish scoop to Pat Cummins and a feisty reverse sweep to Ravi Ashwin, perfectly exemplify the fearless and spirited brand of cricket that he is here to play.
It has been a long and thrilling journey from the inner lanes of Belapur to the starry city lights of Mumbai for Varma, but it has only just begun. And with bat in hand, his heart up his sleeve, and a fire in his belly, he is ready to take you along for the ride. So fasten your seatbelts… and be prepared to have a permanent dent on the edge of your seat.