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.