It’s not often these days that the 19-year-old Tilak Varma gets to enjoy his favourite dish – the Hyderabadi Mandi. The demands of professional cricket have brought in its own set of restrictions, but he isn’t complaining.
Hailing from what Tilak calls ‘the laidback city’ of Hyderabad, his cricket is quite unlike the way of life of his hometown. He has a spring in his step, a sense of urgency and hustle, more fitting of his newest adopted cricket centre – Mumbai. Almost nonchalantly, in only his second IPL match, he pulled R Ashwin over fine leg, lofted Navdeep Saini and Riyan Parag over long-off and tonked Yuzvendra Chahal over mid-wicket – all for sixes. Effortlessness and simplicity personified, he crushed a few reputations with simple strides forward and clean bat swing.
All of it with his SS bat.
The SS bat though wasn’t always his greatest ally.
Eight years ago, when he was playing tennis-ball cricket with a bunch of older boys, Salam Bayash spotted him and urged him to join his academy. His father, an electrician by profession, could barely manage to pay the fees of the Legala Sports Academy, but encouraged his son to pursue his passion for as long as his academics remain unaffected.
But a newly-purchased SS bat, for a then-princely sum of INR 5999, didn’t stand good for too long then. “It broke very soon,” Tilak recalls to Cricbuzz. However, using a spare bat given by his coach, he went on to score heavily, captained Hyderabad’s Under-14 team and became the highest run-getter in the Under-16 domestic one-day competition.
“When my photo started appearing in newspapers and my coach kept telling my parents that I have enough talent, they were convinced and allowed me to focus on my cricket,” Tilak says.
More importantly, being recognized by BCCI on live television at the Naman Awards for being the highest run-getter in the 2016-17 season of Under-16, sponsorship came in – as fate would have it, from Sareen Sports Industries (SS). Not only did that allow him a supply to fresh bats but also eased a bit of his financial burden.
Picked in the 2020 edition of the Under-19 world cup, he didn’t quite light up the tournament but his exploits in domestic cricket thereafter did bring him to the attention of a few franchises who tussled it out at the 2022 IPL auctions.
The latest promising story of Mumbai Indians’ highly successful scouting group, Tilak has been tasked to fill in the shoes of Ishan Kishan in the much-vaunted middle order. With the latter’s promotion to the top of the order and Suryakumar Yadav’s absence to injury recovery, in the first two games, he has displayed artistry of both – Kishan’s audacity and Surya’s craftiness in shot-making, powerful yet easy to the eye.
It thus comes as no surprise that he has idolized Suresh Raina through his growing up years.
But he’s still a work in progress; not only for the franchise but also for the goals that he has set for himself. “My present goal is to get my team over the line, irrespective of what the situation is, in whatever way I can: as a batter, bowler or a fielder; irrespective of where I’m playing – whether it’s a local match or an IPL match. There are a lot of goals – to wear the whites, to win a world cup for India. But now, it’s just to win games for Mumbai Indians in the IPL.
“That’s what the coach has also advised me – irrespective of what the situation is, just keep the team’s goal in front of you. If you do that, everything will fall in place.”
It seems to have fallen in place for him, at least so far – in the two games, where he has shown promise of fulfilling the hole in the middle order. In fact, that has been the only spot that has been ably filled so far as Mumbai Indians have looked to find adequate replacements post-auction, and are still far from the solutions they are looking for in other areas – bowling attack and death hitters.
At 19, he has already become the youngest MI player to score an IPL half-century. But there is more value in him that is being explored by the franchise. Work is on behind the scenes on his bowling.
It took beating bids by three franchises – Rajasthan Royals, Sunrisers Hyderabad and Chennai Super Kings – for Mumbai Indians to get the services of Tilak, having to shell out INR 1.7 Crore. The big moolah, on the other hand, has enabled Tilak to fulfil his big, long-standing dreams.
“The day the IPL auction was going on, I was on a video call with my coach. My coach started tearing up when the bids kept going higher. After I was picked, I called up my parents. They too started crying over the call. My mother was struggling to get words out.
“Growing up, we’ve had a lot of financial difficulties. My father with his meagre salary had to look after my cricket expenses as well as my elder brother’s studies. In the last few years, with some sponsorship and match fees, I could just about take care of my cricketing expenses.
“We don’t own a house as yet. So with whatever I have earned in this IPL, my only aim is to get a house for my parents. This IPL money gives me the luxury to play freely for the rest of my career.”