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Time to fight back, show character: Raina

Southpaw talks of his preps for England ODIs and the need to lift the spirits in the camp

In every sports team there are a couple of guys who, besides contributing in the areas of their expertise, are also unofficially in charge of the team’s energy quotient. These are the players who will run around encouraging their team mates, clap vigorously and be the first to hi-five someone on a good goal, a brilliant save or a stunning catch.

Suresh Raina has always been one such team man for India. For him keeping the spirits high within the camp is as important as skill-based contribution. Team India need him and his personality more than ever before as they look to put the Test series defeat behind them and start afresh for the ODI series against England.

In a chat with BCCI.TV, Raina sounded positive and confident as he strives to lift the team with the bat, ball and his mirth.

How did you spend your time after the Bangladesh ODI series?

I practiced in Delhi, Noida on a turf wicket and played a few matches in rainy conditions. I went to the Lucknow sports college where I stayed in the boarding school as a kid and practiced there a lot. For the last 10 days or so, I was in Mumbai working at the BKC (Bandra Kurla Complex) indoor facilities. I feel good going into this series and having done well here before there is a level of confidence as well.

Did you have a session or two with Sachin Tendulkar at the BKC?

He came there to play badminton and since Arjun practiced in the nets there, Sachin paaji came to give him some tips. I went up to him and asked how should go about things in England. I had a lot of conversations with him mainly on the mental side of things. I also worked with (Pravin) Amre sir there at the BKC on various aspects of my batting.

What preparations did you do keeping in mind the English conditions? Did you practise against the moving ball?

I played a lot with a taped tennis ball to simulate the movement. We have two long practice sessions here at the Lord’s and then a warm-up match against Middlesex. Then we go to Bristol and have two more practice sessions there. We have enough time until the first ODI to get into the groove and settle down in these conditions.

How is it for you guys to join the team that is smarting from the Test series defeat?

The team is going through a difficult phase right now and it is time for us to show character. It can be difficult sometimes to move on from such defeat but you have to fight your way out of it when you’re playing at the international level. The new players will bring freshness in the squad which will help the guys who have been here for the Tests regain the positivity. They are striving to learn from their mistakes and we will add fresh spirit.

As the senior most player to join the team for the ODIs, do you take it upon yourself to bring positivity and exuberance in the camp?

Yes. I always try to maintain the cheerfulness in the team, on and off the field. I am the first person to run to the bowler or fielder when a wicket falls. Small things like running to the bowler at fine leg or third man to fetch his sweater can make a huge difference in the team’s atmosphere. It is contagious – when one player starts doing it, another follows, and before you know the whole team is pumping with energy and high spirits. This energy takes time to build – sometimes four overs, at times 10 overs. To create that atmosphere someone has to take a lead and make that extra effort. Everyone is either thinking about their own batting or bowling. But I have learned from my coach that these small things can add a lot of value to the team. Mahi (MS Dhoni) always says that when someone makes a brilliant stop or takes a good catch, go and pat him on the back. That shows how involved you are in the game. If I just stand there minding my own business, everyone will just go through the motions. But if I go and pat someone, he will come and do the same when I do something good. That creates a positive aura around in the field, makes you feel lighter and lifts everyone around. That is something that’s in my hands and something I have been doing for the last 10 years.

You have been very open about your desire to bat higher up the order in the ODIs. In recent times, have the difference between batting at 4 and 6 reduced?

The roles have become a lot similar since the two new ball rule has come. That means I will get a more or less new ball to face. In that way the ODI skills have become much more similar to Test skills. The good thing now is that even when batting at 6, I don’t have to bat with tailenders or protect them because this lower order can really bat. Another important aspect of batting at that position is the powerplay overs. It has been a tricky area. Often teams lose wickets in heaps trying to hit everything out. We have been trying to read it over the years and planned as to how to go about that phase. It is very important to have at least one set batsman during the batting powerplay. He needs to carry the score forward while allowing the man at the other end to get in.

How seriously are you taking your bowling, given your role as a part time off spinner?

I know I will be called upon to bowl 4-5 or even more overs and I am prepared for it. The good thing is that I have been bowling regularly in the ODIs. I know that my role with the ball is mainly to contain the runs and I always try to stick to it. But I saw during the Test series that the odd ball was dong a bit from the roughs. I am looking forward to contributing with the ball.

You spent a bit of time with Sourav Ganguly. What did you work on with him?

I had a chat with him on batting. Being a leftie he guided me on things like arm position and other subtle technical things. However, most of it was about the mental makeup when batting in England.

Shirin Sadikot

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Varun Aaron – the speedgun that defied limits

Fast bowler reveals what it’s like to fight and win against your own body

The combination of insanity and intent can make a person accomplish things that are beyond the comprehension of others. It is very difficult to defeat someone who fights his toughest battles with his own self and emerges victorious.

Varun Aaron is a case in point. Ever since the age of 14, all he has wanted to do is bowl as fast as he can. But his own body has been his biggest adversary. By combining his unwavering intent with the right amount of insanity, Varun has fought back every time. Five times.

The fourth England-India Test at Manchester marked Aaron’s return to Test cricket after three years. It was the layoff caused by the last of the five stress fractures in his back he has suffered in the last six years.

Even the strongest willed and toughest built would contemplate slowing down or even giving up. But Aaron didn’t. Not because he didn’t want to but because for him it wasn’t an option.

As an Indian pacer for whom 140-plus kph is normal speed, Varun is seen differently by the others. But for him it’s his nature, even though his body tells him otherwise.

In a chat with BCCI.TV, Varun Aaron opened up about his journey as a fast bowler in India, shared his struggles with injuries and revealed how he motivated himself to come through the tough phase each time.

What triggered your love for fast bowling?

As a kid I heard stories from my dad about his playing days. My dad played club cricket in Bangalore and he told me stories of him hitting the batsmen and breaking someone’s helmet. It did thrill me a bit, although I don’t know how much of it was true (laughs). That was when the first seeds of thought were planted in my head about wanting to bowl fast. Later on I used to watch a lot of cricket with him – the old matches, especially. I watched a lot of matches involving the West Indies and I loved watching Andy Roberts bowl. Even now he is my all-time favourite fast bowler.

As a teenager I was pretty chilled out. I never put any pressure on myself to play for the country or anything. But when I was 14, I first played for my state at the Under-15 level and the same year I got picked up by the MRF Pace Foundation. The other guys who attended the trial with me were much bigger than me. So being selected in that batch was a big thing because not many 14 year olds get picked by them. That was a big step in my cricketing career and it just kick-started things for me.

How was it like growing up as a genuine fast bowler in a country that doesn’t have a culture for fast bowling?

I bowled decently quick then for a 14-year-old. Then interacting with Dennis Lillee in those initial five years, I learned a lot. He shared with me how he thought about his bowling and prepared for it. He left no stone unturned.

One thing that he said helped me a lot was that getting injured is not the end of it all. He had a major injury – his whole back was in a cast. He came back from it and took a bulk of his wickets. I was very fortunate to grow up in such company. The values and work ethic I have towards my bowling and training are mainly because of Dennis. He was not only a great fast bowler but is also a very strong human being.

Talk me through your injury history – your five stress fractures and the rehab processes.

When I had my first stress fracture at age 18, I was in an India Under-19 camp where Dav Whatmore, Paul Chaplin and Paul Close were thrilled to see there was somebody in India who could bowl so fast, was so strongly built and who worked hard. So, they told me I didn’t need to talk to anybody and that they will take care of my rehab. I didn’t have to ask my state association for anything; NCA just took care of it.

I came back really strong and bowled quicker than ever, but had a relapse the next year. Dav and Chappie were still at the NCA and it was a challenge for them because they never thought it would happen again on the same vertebra. After the second rehab my back was good for two years during which I played for India. I started out well and was going to go to Australia but it didn’t happen because of another stress fracture.

The worst point was when I was coming back from the fourth stress fracture and during rehab I had another one. That was really hard to take. It was the lowest point for me and I started to wonder where I was going. That’s when the board (BCCI) stepped in and backed me to the hilt. They sent me to England for an operation and that surgery has done a world of good to my back. I am still going.

How tough was it mentally as a young sportsman to keep missing out on cricket and spend so much time in rehab?

I honestly didn’t find it difficult at all. As a person, if I want something, I make sure I get that. My self belief has gotten me so far. Usually when you have five stress fractures you start to think about reducing the pace or put in a little less to prolong your career. But those thoughts never crossed my mind. Even if someone told me that, I would have brushed it aside.

You mentioned how the rehab after the fifth stress fracture was the most testing phase of your career. How did you get over it?

I didn’t need counseling or anything but it was tough to get through that phase mentally. I just told myself that I have done it four times and there’s no reason why I can’t do it again. I was upset but I wasn’t discouraged in any way. I feel if you have the talent, you should do whatever it takes to maximize it and not let it go to waste.

When you make a comeback and resume playing, does the possibility of another injury keep you cautious?

You have to work a lot harder, think about your body all the time and do proper research. Except me, nobody is going to understand what my body goes through and what I have done to get back here. People tell me that I think too much about my body. But I have to. If I don’t think too much about things I will go back to square one. I have to keep reinventing my bowling and training methods.

I have to plan my life around that. I haven’t had a holiday in 11 years. If I am not playing, I am training. After this Test series, I won’t go home and chill, because I cannot afford to. If you want to bowl really fast at the Test level defying your body, there are so many sacrifices you need to make. It’s a continuous process and you have to keep at it.

Have you had to make any technical change in your action as a preventive measure?

I had to make changes in my action because there was a reason I was getting injured. I have changed my load a little. Earlier, my backfoot used to be really straight, pointing the first slip, which put added stress on the back. I had to open up my hips a bit and for that had to ensure my backfoot faced fine leg. So now my hips and shoulders are much more aligned and it puts less stress on the back.

I am still working on it because the action you’re been bowling with for nine years, you cannot change it in three months. Old habits creep in on and off so I have to keep that in check.

The faster you bowl, the more difficult it gets to have a control on your line and length. Did you have to put in special work in that regards?

When you’re pushing your body to the limit, it obviously reduces the amount of control you have. Saying that, I have never specifically thought that I need to work on my control. I never found it particularly difficult to add control to my pace.

Do you work a lot on swinging the ball?

Swing is something that everybody possesses naturally. At the MRF foundation Dennis was a very strong believer in out-swing. That’s where I got my away swinging ball. We did a lot of target bowling and stuff like that. It has always been a continuous wholesome process. I have never had a day or a session where I’ve decided, ‘okay, today I am going to work on my line and length or swing’.

Do you place a lot of importance on the bouncer? At times do you have to make sure you don’t get carried away with the short ball ploy?

Bouncer is one delivery that has multiple uses. You bowl it to set the batsman up and he might take a blow on the body or get out trying to hit it. It plays several roles depending on the situation you bowl it in and how the batsman reacts to it. The bouncer is an important delivery but you cannot use it too much. It has to be a surprise ball and be bowled at the correct time.

I don’t get carried away with the bouncer but if the captain asks me to bowl more short balls in a spell, I do it. Personally I don’t use it very often. I don’t overrate it because although it is an important ball, it’s not going to fetch you many wickets.

The camaraderie among the current bunch of Indian pacers is unmistakable. Tell me about your relationship with them.

All of us share a great relationship and I am not saying this just because I have to. We naturally get along very well. There is no sense of competition or any under currents among us. That is very healthy for the team atmosphere. We are pretty close to each other off the field although it is still a work in progress given I, Ishwar and Pankaj have just come in. We are a good attack and by the time we go to Australia, we will be more experienced and mature as well.

There is a lot of talk about Ishant taking over as the leader of the pack. How has he helped you on this tour?

We haven’t played that much together but he is good in a way that he gives me valuable inputs on and off. I listen to whatever he tells me because despite being almost my age, he has played 55 Test matches and has a lot of experience to share.

Shirin Sadikot

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