After starting out as a wicketkeeper-batter in lower division cricket in Chennai, switching to medium-pace, and taking a crack at Tamil cinema, Varun Chakravarthy eventually found his true calling: mystery spin. The unique skill put him in the IPL spotlight and most recently in India's T20I side in Sri Lanka, "a dream come true".
Chakravarthy revealed that he had a sleepless night before making his international debut, but he said that the nerves eased once he was thrown into the action at the R Premadasa Stadium. "Paras Mhambrey [bowling coach] gave me the cap and it was a very emotional moment for me," almost-30 Chakravarthy told ESPNcricinfo. "It felt like it was a dream come true and it was what I've been wanting for a long time. Obviously, there was responsibility, but I wasn't blinded by all those emotions and just kept myself in the present.
"I had nerves at the start because it was my first match. I had a sleepless night before the match, but everything settled down once I got into the game."
Chakravarthy said that he had reached out to Dinesh Karthik, his mentor at Kolkata Knight Riders and at Tamil Nadu, before making his international debut. "I called him the day before the match and asked him because he was commentating on the England-Sri Lanka series also. He did give me a few inputs. He shared his observations on where to bowl and how to bowl and how the Sri Lankan players play and those kinds of things."
Charith Asalanka, who was also making his T20I debut in that game, initially went after Chakravarthy, pasting him for two sixes over midwicket. Chakravarthy, however, struck back with his carrom ball to have Sri Lanka captain Dasun Shanaka stumped. Sure, Chakravarthy hasn't been spotted celebrating too animatedly after picking up wickets in the Tamil Nadu Premier League and the IPL, but was the maiden international wicket somewhat special?
"A wicket and a six are both results and not the process," he said. "So, even if it's a six off a good ball, I generally won't react and even if it's a wicket off a bad ball also, I won't react. Anything can happen. As I said, I don't see the wicket as how you told - I was happy that the ball I bowled landed in the perfect place and it turned out properly. Normally, if you see me also, I generally don't react."
Like he often does for Knight Riders in the IPL, Chakravarthy fronted up to bowl in the powerplay as well as at the death on his first international tour. Having bowled the tough overs across two IPLs and the TNPL, Chakravarthy said he was prepared to bowl during any phase in T20s. "In professional cricket, you can't say that I won't bowl at powerplay or death. I'm now used to bowling in the powerplay and death," he said. "I'm comfortable anywhere I get to bowl; it's just about executing properly. It's not about where you are bowling. If you execute properly, you will do well, that's what I feel.
"The preparation changes when I bowl at the death, obviously. The way the batsmen approach at the death will be different from the middle overs. So, in the middle, the field will be there to save the single and in the death, obviously, there will be some protection at the boundary line and you bowl accordingly. I focus on bowling more fuller and yorker balls in the death."
When Chakravarthy darted in a similarly full ball in the first leg of the IPL against Royal Challengers Bangalore in Chennai, a red-hot Glenn Maxwell made that delivery look bad by ruthlessly reverse-swatting it over cover-point. Chakravarthy went on to concede 17 runs in that over, but said that he wasn't perturbed by Maxwell's inventive hitting. "I didn't worry because it was a good ball and it was a good shot. Just because it went for six, you can't worry about it. How much can you control? You can't control much."
Chakravarthy said one of the key takeaways from his first international series was that there was no margin for error at the top level and that the "execution has to be perfect" at all times.
"Obviously, in international cricket, the learning is to keep getting better with every game I play," he said. "Another learning is you have to take full responsibility of what you are going to bowl. In the international level, every ball matters, so you have to take full responsibility for it and the execution has to be perfect. I just stick to my process - it's a very cliched thing - but sticking to the process has become my process. That's the only thing I think about a lot."
After returning from Sri Lanka, Chakravarthy, who has had issues with fitness in the past, went to the National Cricket Academy in Bengaluru. "I'm at the NCA after the Sri Lanka tour. For the past one year, I've been training here at the NCA," he said. "It's going good and I'm working more on it [fitness] and I'm working on it in a holistic way. Let's see how that shapes up."
He is due to return soon to the UAE, where he emerged as Knight Riders' highest wicket-taker in 2020, with 17 strikes at an economy rate of 6.84. Is the T20 World Cup on the back of his mind?
"The goal will be for KKR to qualify [for the playoffs] and I'm just focusing on that," Chakravarthy said. "If I have to be picked in the World Cup, let that happen. If it has to happen, it will happen. The World Cup is there on the back of my mind, but I'm not thinking too much about it.
"There's so much competition [for the spin spots for the T20 World Cup] and that's why I need to keep getting better and better. It's not in a negative way; the competition is positive and healthy."
In the UAE, Chakravarthy will reunite with Sunil Narine, who recently reached 400 T20 wickets, in the Hundred competition - Chakravarthy had first worked with Narine when he was picked as a net bowler for the Knight Riders in the lead-up to IPL 2019.
"Right now, I know whatever he does and he knows whatever I do," Chakravarthy said of Narine. "So, there is not much brainstorming. In the first season itself, we had our discussions. Now, we just look at each other and we know what to do. If I do some mistake, he himself will walk up to me and tell me where I'm going wrong and it's [our relationship] at that level. He is still the best and he's a mentor to me."
Chakravarthy also revealed that he would unleash his new variation - something that he has been working on for a while, according to Knight Riders spin-bowling coach Carl Crowe - in the second leg of IPL 2021. A strong performance there could potentially push Chakravarthy into India's squad for the T20 World Cup, which will also be held in the UAE - and Oman - though, as he himself pointed out, the competition for a limited number of spots has been fierce.