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International Domestic

I have always enjoyed pushing the limits: Varun Aaron

19th Mar, 2024

Final first-class match. At his home ground. In front of his home fans. Putting in a marathon lung-busting effort. Picking up 5 wickets. Helping Jharkhand sign off with a win. Enjoying the moment with his biggest support system - his family.

"It was a perfect ending to my red-ball career," says Varun Aaron, reflecting on his final first-class match and his entire red-ball career with a subtle blend of emotion and profound satisfaction evident in his voice. Aaron's final first-class match indeed served as a microcosm of his career defined by unwavering determination and a will to succeed, as he helped Jharkhand secure a win over Rajasthan in their final match of the 2023-24 Ranji Trophy campaign. 

Aaron burst onto the scene in 2008 as a tearaway pacer who grabbed everyone's attention with his raw pace. And right through his cricketing journey, he's stayed true to what made him so exciting - his sheer speed. He made his India debut in 2011 in the Wankhede Test against the West Indies and went on to play nine Tests and nine ODIs for India, providing some memorable spells and moments to remember. Despite suffering eight stress fractures on the back, three on the foot, and undergoing back surgery, Aaron has consistently pushed through the pain barrier, overcoming obstacles with resilience. While consistent injuries impacted his international career, he motored on through sheer power of will and passion, becoming a vital cog in the Jharkhand side's transformation. He finished with 173 first-class, 138 List A and 93 T20 wickets.

He called time on his illustrious first-class career at the end of Jharkhand's final group stage match of the 2023-24 Ranji Trophy campaign in Jamshedpur. While his red-ball journey may have come to an end, Aaron's cricketing journey endures as he sets his sights on white-ball cricket.

As he walked into the sunset of his red-ball career, Aaron reflected on his journey, discussing all things speed, reminiscing about the iconic wickets of Moeen Ali and Hashim Amla, his eventful Test debut, and much more

Excerpts from the interview

Last match on the ground you made your first-class debut in and that too in front of your family, take us through the emotions of their final first-class match

While walking into the ground, getting ready to bowl, I was just like, 'Man, I am unbelievably lucky and blessed to play this game in front of my family and play it at the Keenan stadium in Jamshedpur, where I've practiced and played all my life. 15 of my family members came down from all over India, including my 83-year-old grandma, who is my biggest cheerleader. I was going into a game in which we had to win to save face, as Jharkhand had the worst season since I've played. A day before, in the team meeting, I told the boys that I might be retiring from red-ball cricket, Saurabh Tiwary is retiring from all formats, but let's not forget we have to win this game irrespective of who's retiring. Let's not get caught up in all these festivities and farewells. It only got better when I bowled 19 overs, more than Shahbaz Nadeem, who generally outbowls everybody. I was so determined to get a win in this game, I bowled 19 overs on a dead wicket and got four wickets in the first innings and a wicket in the second. We batted really well and eventually won the match. It was the perfect ending to my red-ball career. 

 How do you look back at your first-class career?

I look back with only good memories. I've been a part of a Jharkhand team where we've transcended from being just another team to one of the best teams who would qualify all the time, like the top six-seven teams in India. Throughout my career, I've stayed true to myself. In 2011, when I got into the Indian team, everybody asked me this one question, every single reporter, print- media, and news channel - 'will you bowl fast all the time?' I said, if I don't bowl fast, I will not play cricket. Because I love bowling fast. That gives me joy. Cricket is a game in which you should do what makes you happy. Bowling 130, 135 km does not float my boat. I don't enjoy it. So the moment I feel that I am bowling medium fast, I will just not play the game. I've been true to myself; given Jharkhand some of the best results, and given Indian fans some moments to remember. I would have loved to play more Test cricket, but with the number of injuries I've had, it's never been easy. However, I've been really blessed to have had a great support system - family, physios, support staff and trainers at the NCA and the MRF Pace Foundation. BCCI has really helped me a lot. In 2013, they sent me away to England for surgery, which saved my career.

That said, I'm still playing white-ball cricket. I'm going to give it my all, and I know I'm going to have a good few years.

Do you remember your first Test wicket?

Absolutely, I fondly remember the way it happened more than it being the first Test wicket. We were playing at the Wankhede Stadium. It was a really flat wicket, and the West Indies were 500 something for four. And I was really down. I was 21 years old and had never bowled 21 overs without a wicket. Sachin Tendulkar was standing at mid-off, he looked at me and asked, 'why are you looking so down?' I was like, you know what, Paaji, I've never bowled 21 overs for no wickets. I can't believe this is happening on my debut. He's like, come here. We stopped mid-over and he said, ‘Do you know I waited 22 years for my first World Cup Trophy? So you can wait 21 overs for your first wicket, there's no problem with that. Please come down to earth and get bowling. I was like, Man, seriously, that makes so much sense. The very next ball, I got Darren Bravo (166) out, caught behind. Then got two other wickets - Carlton Baugh and Daren Sammy. And that just changed my debut. Just a few words from Sachin Tendulkar. I had also induced an edge off Marlon Samuels, but it was dropped. I was bowling flat out, gas out in my 26th over. If I had gotten that wicket, you never know, I would've gotten one more over from MS Dhoni and may be a fifer as well. It was just a great spell inspired by the great Sachin Tendulkar. And it just shows you that these very small things can actually change careers, change a debut for somebody.

In general, what are the fond memories of your Test debut?

The first is getting my Test cap from VVS Laxman. The second is my first Test wicket. And the third is, that match was actually a drawn Test where the scores were level at the end of the fourth innings. So, actually, for two months, our coach has not given me a single day of batting practice. Suddenly, I walk out, trying to save the Test against Fidel Edwards, who is bowling 150 plus with a reversing cricket ball. Basically, I was thrown into the deepest fire. I'm like, boss, I've got to do this. With four runs needed, I get a single off the last ball of the penultimate over, with R Ashwin at the other end. I somehow survive three balls of the final over from Edwards and take a risky single off the fourth ball. The next ball is a dot. So we require two runs off the last ball. The field is spread. Ashwin hits it to long on, I think we can run two, but Ash is run out on the second run. The scores are tied. It was quite an eventful test debut. Just with that chat with Sachin, getting those three wickets and having a very memorable first outing with the bat.

Those Moeen Ali (Manchester Test 2014) and Hashim Amla (Bengaluru Test 2015) dismissals are etched in everyone's minds. Which one was your favourite? Take us through both the deliveries

They are both very special. Moeen Ali was a big breakthrough, as we weren't getting wickets. It was a brilliant ball. It hooped, maybe from the 7th stump, and hit the middle stump. A great ball, and great also in the context of the game because England were running away with the game. I had got Garry Ballance, who was getting a lot of runs against us that year, out earlier and Moeen was my next wicket. 

With the Hashim Amla wicket, too, the context is different. Because a) It was a very flat Bangalore wicket. B) My dad and mom had just walked into the stands. And c) It was in Bangalore, my second home town. Getting Hashim Amla bowled, top of off, beating him all ends up in Bangalore, in front of my parents, was great. For my dad, what's even better is, after Hashim Amla got out, the next over I came around the wicket, and hit Dean Elgar on the badge. My dad completely forgets about the Amla wicket and only talks about me hitting Elgar on the badge. He loves that. And doing it on Indian wickets…it doesn't happen all the time, right?. Doing those kinds of things in India is always special.

Can you take us through the planning and execution of those two wickets?

The Moeen Ali delivery...  I knew the ball was just semi-new and the Dukes ball does swing a lot. I was in great rhythm, and I had gotten Cook and Gary balanced out in the morning. And I was like, man, I'm going to go all out at Moeen Ali because he was a bit susceptible to the bouncer. So I bowled a bouncer which he gloved awkwardly and it went just over short leg. And I was like, okay, this ball, I'm going to bowl it full now and make sure it hits the top of off. I did exactly that, only thing, it hit the middle. His footwork was a little messed up from the previous delivery. 

The Amla ball, to be honest, I bowled an in-swinger. The ball moved in the air, it hit the seam, which was scrambled, and straightened. So, when somebody is bowling like a fast in-swinger, you play for in-swing but it just straightened at the correct line and length, and hit top of off, and the stump went cartwheeling. I really enjoyed both deliveries.

How did you adjust to the demands of the body when it came to pace?

To be honest, my body never really enjoyed me adjusting to its demands. So many times, it was just like, 'Dude, enough, you're really pushing yourself'. But I honestly enjoy pushing limits. I'm a bit of an adrenaline junkie. I get a kick out of just trying to be on the edge. So, I enjoy bowling fast. I mean, it's not for everybody to put their bodies through it. I would say I've been really fortunate to have a great support system in the BCCI, NCA, MRF Pace Foundation, which has helped me, irrespective of my being really stubborn and not putting down on pace, and having the amount of setbacks I've had, which has really helped me see myself through. 

The only way you can adjust to the demands is obviously mental. You've got to keep telling yourself that you can do it. Because I feel nothing is impossible for the human body. If I can bowl at 150 clicks after having eight stress fractures, any bowler can get through any setback, any injury, any form-slump, anything.

So, not even a single time did that thought of cutting down the pace and adjusting to the demands of the body come to your mind?

No, never, honestly. There were so many times people told me, boss, why are you bowling like late 140s, 150s, just cut down 6-7 Kms, bowl late 130s, bowl early 140s. I did try it for maybe 6 months, but then I was getting irritated with myself. This is not me. I'm not enjoying myself. Honestly, anything I do in life, I really like staying true to myself, and cutting down on pace will be exactly the opposite. I want to max out, give 150%, and whatever happens, happens. At least at the end of the day, when I come home and I look at myself in the mirror, number one, I'm staying true to myself, number two, I have given everything I have. So, no matter what the consequence, I sleep well at night, that is the most important thing.

You had your fair share of injuries and frustrations, what motivated you to keep going?

Number one - my inner drive to keep proving myself to myself. Number two - I really believe that if God has given you a gift - and he does not give everybody the gift of bowling 150-plus, it is not something you can practice, either you are born with it or not - then I should really maximize it in my life. Number three - My support system - My family, BCCI, NCA and MRF Pace Foundation. Subroto Banerjee, who was coaching us in 2013, played a big role in my Ranji Trophy career. He and Dennis Lillee have been my coaches and mentors. In 2013, Banerjee was the person who coached me back to the Indian team. He is one of the best bowling coaches in the world.

What’s your most memorable moment in FC cricket 

Getting my Test cap. Because there is nothing better than having a number that is yours. Nobody can take that away from me. I am the 173rd player to play Test cricket for India, and that is something that I am going to take with me to my grave.

In the Ranji Trophy, I had two of them. The last match, in front of my family, winning the game, getting four wickets, and me just enjoying that moment with my family was surreal.

The other one: We were playing against Odisha in Ranchi in the 2018-19 campaign. They put up a really long stand for the last wicket. Subhranshu Senapati was batting with their No. 11 Dhiraj Singh. And somehow, I had bowled a 10-over spell all-out. It was hitting his gloves, edging, falling short of the keeper, beside the keeper, LBW, not given out, everything. It was one of those spells where you've tried everything and nothing has worked. I was dead after bowling 10-overs on the trot. Somehow, he would take a single off the last ball of the over. So, I was not even getting to bowl one ball to the tail-ender. Suddenly, they needed two runs to win the game in two overs. Co-incidentally, by some stroke of luck, the No.11 was playing the first ball of the over. At that point, I didn't give it a thought. My bowling coach, SS Rao, who is a very good friend of mine, shouted from outside and said, I don't care how tired you are, just bowl this over. I took about five minutes to warm up, because my body was so tired. I knew I had this last crack. Out came the suggestions from all corners - bowl a bouncer, yorker, this, that. I was like, dude, I am bowling four balls my way, and if it doesn't work, it's all yours. I couldn't get him out off the first three balls. He was just putting his dead bat in front of the ball. Tonnes of suggestions were on the way again. It was (non-technically) my last ball of how I wanted to bowl, and I bowled this ball, similar to the Hashim Amlan one – in-swinger, straightens after hitting the seam, beats the batter, just clips the off bail, and we win. Oh, my God! In your home ground, in front of your home fans, to pull off a miracle like that in a Ranji Trophy game, on the last day, second last over—that's something you live for as a cricketer.

One cricketing moment from your red-ball career that will be etched in your memory forever? 

Getting six wickets against Karnataka in Karnataka in the 2014-15 Irani Trophy is something that is going to be special for me. 

Also, the Alistair Cook wicket. It was my first wicket on comeback after two and a half years. Everyone knows that Cook is a really good puller of the ball. Me and my very good friend Murali Vijay were having a chat the previous night over dinner. He asked me, 'how are you going to get Cook out?' I said, I'm going to bounce him out. He was like, what? The team doesn't want that. They've told you to bowl a certain line outside off the stump for Cook. Why don't you just do that? I was like, I just know I'm going to bounce him and get him out. I had bowled all six balls of the first over to Cook and then off the first ball of my second over, I told myself, it’s time to bounce him. Bumped him, it took the edge, and the ball went straight to Pankaj Singh, who had bowled a really good six-over spell to Cook and was unlucky not to dismiss him.

What lessons did you learn from the Ranji Trophy?

You learn so many lessons. Life lessons. Because to win a four-day game, you have to outplay your opponent every single day for four days. Which is obviously not easy. It showed me the importance of patience, it showed me the importance of persisting. Even if you're having setbacks or had a bad game, just forget it, trust your abilities, trust your instincts and come back and have a good game. How you can push on through the injury and make your team win. No matter how tired you are, you have to push yourself, bowl that extra spell for your team. So, Ranji Trophy is a lot of self-sacrifice for an out-and-out fast bowler. 

 What would be your advice to young pacers looking to make a mark in domestic cricket?

There should be a willingness to work hard because the Ranji Trophy is not easy. You've got to put 100% day in and day out to get results. Try to overcome obstacles and enjoy your wins. And finally, prioritize Test cricket. Because the moment you do that in your head, you will obviously put in that much more effort in the Ranji Trophy.

Also, I would like to inspire younger generations through the work I've put in for fast bowling to make sure that if there are any kids who love bowling fast, they never give up on their dream of bowling fast, irrespective of any setbacks. If I can do it after 8 stress fractures on the back, surgery, and three stress fractures to my foot, anybody can.