The making of Tilak Varma: From tennis-ball cricket to playing for Mumbai Indians & earning India call-up | Cricket News | Fitness tips of the day

NEW DELHI: July 5, 2023, was turning out to be a normal day in the life of Salam Bayash, head coach of the Legala Cricket Academy in Lingampalli, Hyderabad. After finishing his day’s work at the academy, Bayash was on his way home when suddenly his phone rang, prompting him to park his scooter on the side of the road.
It was a video call from his beloved student, left-handed batter Tilak Varma, who was in Bengaluru with the South Zone team for Duleep Trophy.
“When I connected with him on the call, he was full of happiness and said, ‘Sir, sir’. I asked him, ‘Is everything all right?’ He said, ‘Sir, I have got the call for the Indian team for the T20 matches against West Indies’,” recalled Bayash in a chat with IANS.
It is almost going to be a week since the news broke of Varma getting his maiden T20I call-up, but the happiness in Bayash’s voice hasn’t yet faded away. “As soon as I heard it, I was instantly happy and joyful. After hearing this happy news, I then stopped at a shop to buy some sweets.
“It was an extremely happy moment for both of us. The aim which was thought for him and the plans and efforts which were made to achieve it, the Almighty has rewarded (for) that,” he added.

Varma burst into limelight by amassing 397 runs for Mumbai Indians in IPL 2022 at a strike-rate of 131.02. In IPL 2023, he was again impactful for the franchise, making 347 runs in 11 matches at a strike-rate of 164.11.
The meeting of Bayash with Varma happened by chance in 2011/12, at a Barkaz ground near Balapur, where he saw a young boy playing tennis-ball cricket with his friends. Awestruck by the young Varma’s ability to hit the ball very well, Bayash approached him immediately.

“I asked where he used to stay and practice his game. He replied, ‘I don’t go anywhere. I practice here.’ I asked for his father’s number and spoke to him. He was ready to talk to me and I was ready to take charge.”
But the journey wasn’t easy. Varma came from a lower-middle-class household, and father, Namboori Nagaraju, worked as an electrician. But Bayash assured him he would be responsible for Tilak’s travel from home to academy and back.
Thus began Varma’s journey of traveling from Balapur to Chandrayangutta in the old city region of Hyderabad, covering 11 kms. After Bayash picked him up, the duo would ride on the scooter from Chandrayangutta to the academy in Lingampalli, another journey of 41 kms.

“At the academy, he would be there from 6 am and spend his whole time there till 6:30 pm. After the practice was over, he (sometimes) used to fall asleep on the way back to home. I used to fear about him falling from behind.”
After a year of this hectic routine, Bayash realised that it was taking a toll on Varma’s overall health, leaving him exhausted. He went to Nagaraju with a request to shift closer to the academy in Lingampalli, a decision which was taken for Varma’s betterment.
“I requested his father to shift closer to the academy so that Tilak could avoid the tiring travel. It also helped that they had relatives in that area. From that point onwards, Tilak became more regular in his practice at the academy.”
After the travel issue was resolved, Varma worked hard under Bayash’s supervision with an intention to make big runs. He soon made waves, amassing 960 runs in the U16 Vijay Merchant Trophy for Hyderabad, paving the way for a senior debut in 2019 domestic season.
He then became the top-scorer in the quadrangular series India U-19 played just before the U-19 World Cup in South Africa. In the competition, he amassed 86 runs in three innings as India finished runners-up to Bangladesh.

In November 2021, Varma dished out impressive performances for Hyderabad in Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy. A 50-ball 75 in the quarter-final against Gujarat and a 32-ball 37 in a successful chase of 171 against Delhi were his standout knocks.
When Milap Mewada became the Hyderabad coach before the start of the season, he noticed Varma’s batting potential and knew he was destined for greatness.
“The more sessions we did together, I could realise that this guy is of international standard and will make it there very soon. I could easily identify Tilak among all as the next big thing to come up from Hyderabad.”
It was also a time when scouts of various IPL franchises were watching matches, and on seeing Varma’s exceptional form, they noted him. One of the interested teams was Mumbai Indians, who would eventually pick him in the 2022 mega auction for Rs 1.7 crore.
“I used to tell many franchise people ‘keep a watch out for Tilak Varma. You take my word, this guy will never be a loss’. I had chats with people like Irfan Pathan and even VVS Laxman, also a Hyderabad resident, and said, ‘Tilak is going to be big and will be very good for any team’.
“There was interest in him by franchises, including Mumbai Indians. But he did very well in all trials he went for.” added Mewada.
In just his second IPL game, batting at number four, Varma showed he had the game to excel against both spin and pace while making a 33-ball 61 against Rajasthan Royals. It included a courageous reverse-sweep for six against ace off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin. But Ashwin castled Varma the very next ball.
After that, Mewada was quick to reach out to Varma and give him a lesson in assessing the risk associated in facing an ace bowler like Ashwin.
“While playing in domestic cricket, our aim was to set discipline in Tilak and other batters, that whenever you hit a boundary off a conventional or unconventional shot, you need to take a single on the next ball.
“I messaged him that Ashwin is a smart bowler and the moment you hit him for a six, you woke him up. So he will bowl to you now differently and you have to manage. You can’t go after him every ball as he will be smarter than you on the next ball.
“He understood you can’t get carried away, as getting out after playing an excellent shot was not a good sign. Most important thing is that Tilak is a very quick learner and was quick to understand how one can assess the risks.”
Varma’s entry into the IPL with Mumbai, the five-time champions, has done a lot of good to him as a batter.
“At Mumbai, they have a lot of star players, like (mentor) Sachin Tendulkar sir, and there’s no one better than him to give Tilak valuable tips.
“A lot of changes have come in Tilak’s game in terms of his batting, bat-swing, and shot selection. He has got wonderful experiences in being at Mumbai. Last year, he was nurtured by Mahela Jayawardene and Zaheer Khan, and in this season he got great help from being under Mark Butcher and Kieron Pollard,” Mewada said.
Being alongside Suryakumar Yadav and Rohit Sharma has also contributed to Varma’s growth, in Mewada’s opinion.
“When he was starting in the IPL, he was a little conservative in the start while picking his shots because he wanted to get a start and make an impact. But if you give him the license to play his game, he can contribute to the team in a lot different way,” he added.
“If the requirement is to bat with a 300+ strike-rate, he is the guy who can do it at number three or four. He is blessed to be with Mumbai and gain understanding in terms of mindset as being with like-minded people makes a lot of difference in growing as a youngster.”
From that point, there was no stopping Varma – 121 for India A in a four-day match against New Zealand A in Bengaluru was followed by a fifty against them in a 50-over game in Chennai. His purple patch continued with four fifties in a row in the 2022/23 Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, and two centuries plus one fifty in the Vijay Hazare Trophy.
But during the India ‘A’ tour of Bangladesh in December last year, Tilak retired hurt on 33 in the first four-day match. Medical tests revealed a muscle strain, causing him to miss several matches, including the whole Ranji Trophy season.
Recalling that terrible phase which caused Varma a lot of weakness, Bayash said, “I felt extremely bad on seeing his condition. I used to call him on regular basis and he would say, ‘Sir, my season…’ Then I would say you first think about being fit and once you are fine, then you think about the season. You will get a season anytime. Right now, matches are not important and prepare yourself to get fine physically.
“He would be worried about staying away from playing the game. But I would tell him that even if you take rest for two months, you are someone who can get ready to practice in 20 days’ time. There is no need for you to be very nervous. You need to take rest and recover well. This phase comes in life of every cricketer, and they come out of it by resting adequately to be fully fit.”
Varma went to the National Cricket Academy (NCA) in Bengaluru for an extensive rehab before returning home to Hyderabad. Bayash was quick in setting a schedule for Varma’s return to practice – two hours practice and four hours rest, then one hour practice, followed by more rest.
“He then got a call to play in the quarterfinal of the DY Patil T20 tournament (for Reliance 1). He said we have just been practicing, and I told him one thing – ‘You are now fully fit and you focus on playing the game with enjoyment. Keep in mind the basics’.”
In that game, Varma made 28 not out.
“I quickly understood that the injury hasn’t clouded his mind and there’s no point in him reminding about it. In IPL 2023, he got excellent support in terms of fitness from Mumbai to recover well in between due to hamstring injury,” added Bayash.

(AI image)
Mewada believes Varma’s improved decision-making skills can help India as they begin preparation for the ODI World Cup this year and the T20 World Cup in 2024.
“He understands when to play a shot, against whom, in what situation and where to play it….He’s good at it and irrespective of the format, he has the capacity to play till the end after playing 15-20 balls.
“Most of the batters get out after having a good start, but in six out of ten times, Tilak has converted his start into a big score. Tilak also possesses very good speed to change his positions against a delivery from a pacer or spinner, which has made him more successful.”
Bayash, who constantly reminds Varma of being capable and strong enough of doing great things for the team, now wishes to see him become the best player for India.
“This boy has it in him to do something good with the bat, and it’s something I have seen since the time I saw him play…he’s a hundred percent guy, irrespective of where he bats, either at number three or even number 10.”

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