Aaron driven by need for speed
This June, Varun Aaron drove to the Bangalore airport to pick up Subroto Banerjee, the former India fast bowler. Banerjee is the head coach of Jharkhand, the eastern state in India that Aaron represents in domestic cricket. Aaron, who was training at the National Cricket Academy, was excited to share some news: he had received two boxes of Dukes balls from England, which he had ordered on his own.
For the next three days Aaron bowled with three balls: new, 40 overs old, and one much older. "The ball condition is bound to change during the course of the match and I wanted him to be able to bowl in any situation," Banerjee said. "His length was fantastic. He was hitting the deck really hard. And he was hitting 150kph. Quick, very quick."
In the Emerging Players tournament in Australia in 2011, Aaron bowled a ball that was clocked at 153.4kph. Months before that, during the Indian domestic season, he fired in a 153kph delivery against Gujarat in the final of the Vijay Hazare Trophy.
A fast bowler who can consistently clock 90mph and above has been a rarity in India. A few in the past like Munaf Patel and Ishant Sharma floored it early in their careers but became slower after the first year or so in order to curtail injury concerns. Mohammed Shami can touch the mid-to-late 80mph but not regularly.
Only Umesh Yadav of the current crop of Indian fast bowlers has showed the same aggressive attitude as Aaron has towards going full throttle. Although Aaron has played only two Tests, his desire to not compromise on speed despite career-threatening stress fractures - five at last count after his international debut in 2011 against West Indies - makes him an attractive fast bowler to keep an eye on.
At Old Trafford, in his first Test of the ongoing series, Aaron asked questions of the England batsmen with his speed and lethal swing both ways. The inswinging yorker-length delivery, measured at 85.9mph, bowled from wide of the crease that knocked back Moeen Ali's off stump will remain one of the moments of thes series. Not to forget the 87mph perfectly pitched short delivery, which screamed its way into the grill of Stuart Broad's helmet, broke his nose and drew blood, forcing the batsman to leave the ground.
Last year, around the same time, it was Aaron's career that seemed to have taken a near fatal blow after he suffered his fifth stress fracture to the back. "If you have five stress fractures and still bowl fast you have got to be a little mad to do that. I don't think a normal, sane person would like to bowl fast after getting the injury," Aaron said in an interview the day before the India squad departed for England in June.
The first stress fracture occurred at the end of 2008. A year later the injury returned to haunt him. That it was recurring became evident when it resurfaced again, in 2011, shortly after his debut Test in Mumbai. But when the injury came twice in close succession, just when Aaron believed he had seen the back of it (the stress fracture returned once again mid-way into 2012), he feared his career was over.
"In 2011 I got injured after my debut Test. Then I played the IPL, but the same stress fracture occurred again," Aaron said. "My aim was to recover and play the Ranji Trophy in the next season. Everything was going well, and then suddenly during the rehab there was a relapse. That was definitely the lowest point of my career.
"I do not know how to put it, but it was very, very disappointing to get injured during the recovery. There was no reason for me to get injured at that point because my workloads were very less. I was training under a controlled environment."
According to Aaron, stress fractures are not hugely restrictive. "Stress fractures are very funny. They just hurt you while you bowl. It is a very sharp pain which gets aggravated when you bowl. And you can't do too many weights."
Further medical examinations revealed that the bone was not healing and that a little fluid had leaked from the upper vertebra, which hampered the healing process. The only option left was surgery. So Aaron, sponsored by the BCCI, travelled to London to visit spine specialist Lester Wilson.
While on the sidelines, he managed to make a vital change to his bowling action. "All my coaches, including Dennis Lillee [MRF Pace Foundation], Bharat Arun [National Cricket Academy] said I had to open up my back foot. That was the right suggestion. With various inputs from the coaches I have made slight adjustments to my load, which opens up my back foot towards fine leg now and relieves the pressure on my back," Aaron said.
Aaron remembers well the stories Lillee told him about his own battle with serious stress fractures that nearly cost him his career. "Dennis has been a big inspiration for me," he says. "My work ethic and the attitude I have towards fast bowling and training is all because of him. I can never forget the inputs he gave me as a kid. Dennis always told me that it is important to have a good work ethic. If you have to be a fast bowler you have to be super fit at all times. Never leave anything back at training. You have to make sure you give 100% every time you train. I follow that principle strictly and it has worked for me."
When his son was growing up, Clement Paul Aaron would tell the boy stories of how he would bowl fast and hit batsmen on the head when he played cricket in Bangalore. Both men would watch in fascination and discuss passionately the exploits of the West Indies quartet. Along with Lillee, Andy Roberts and Wasim Akram were the other fast bowlers the young Aaron idolised.
But when he started playing cricket in his teens, Aaron was a batsman. "I never thought of bowling fast when I was young. I took a break from coaching for a couple of months. When I got back I started to bowl and my coach said I was quick. Suddenly I discovered I could bowl fast," Aaron says.
His competitive cricket started at Under-15 level for Jharkhand. The same year, TA Sekhar, the former India fast bowler and the backbone of the MRF Pace Foundation at the time, saw Aaron's talent and inducted him into a camp in Chennai.
Sekhar remembers the "strong boy with raw pace" he came upon while scouting for youngsters in Jharkhand in 2004. Seeing Aaron had a mixed action, Sekhar took him to England to work with biomechanists in order to make sure the youngster would not be hampered by injuries later.
What did pace mean to Aaron at a young age? "I just enjoyed playing the game more than anything else. There was no thinking concerning pace as such. I became serious only when I turned 18. At that point I realised that I was quicker than the others, and if I keep working on my bowling I might play for the country one day."
Allan Donald, now the bowling coach at Royal Challengers Bangalore (Aaron's IPL team), thinks Aaron has all the makings. "He is a very good athlete. A strong guy. I look at two bowlers in the Indian fast bowling bench who are physically very well built, have very strong actions - they are Varun and Umesh Yadav," Donald says. "Those two are the quickest bowlers. What makes them attractive is they are very aggressive mentally. They can get stuck in."
Aaron's first stint in the Indian dressing room came during India's 2011 one-day series in England, when he flew in as a replacement for the injured Ishant. Although he did not get to play, he was happy to make mental notes about the various skills needed to perform in England.
This time, in the week leading up to departure, Aaron had the opportunity to speak to Glenn McGrath. "He said that the length is very important in England. You can't be on the shorter side; then you cannot get maximum purchase from the pitch," Aaron said. "He said it was important to be very patient and keep it simple, keep bowling at the spot throughout the day. He said if I could do that I would end up with a lot of wickets."
Aaron reckons his debut Test match taught him a valuable lesson. "I'm much more patient than I used to be three to four years ago. To be honest, that one Test match was a great leveller for me. I learned a lot from that experience. In the past, I would just decide to bowl fast and I would want to pick a wicket almost every ball. Now I know that you do not play cricket that way and I have to have patience," Aaron said.
Over the last year or so Aaron has realised he needs to work out the batsman with a plan and not just speed. "I have changed a lot as a bowler. I try to be as consistent as possible. It is relative, depends on who is batting. Accordingly, things happen in my mind."
Aaron is 24 years old. The team management -- captain MS Dhoni, head coach Duncan Fletcher and bowling coach Joe Dawes - has sent a clear message to Aaron: bowl fast. "They have told me that I must bowl quick whenever I am given the ball. That is my role in the team."
Not that he needs encouragement. Like a nervous boxer, he is always hopping, jumping, stretching, and running around frantically. You can sense Aaron's excitement in his follow-through: virtually after every ball he raises his hands in appeal or narrows his eyes as if he had nearly cornered his man.
According to Sekhar, Aaron is "is a smart fast bowler. That can be a disadvantage because he thinks too much."
Donald agrees. "Two things he needs to work on. The first one is the battle with himself technically. He gets very wound up if things do not go well. It is almost like he forgets to compete with who is in front of him and instead competes with his own action."
Then there is the question of focus. "Once he gets stuck in bowling short every now and again, he struggles to find his natural length," Donald says. "He got pummeled a couple of times near the end of the IPL. He got too predictable. In Test cricket, in English conditions, where every pitch is different, he needs to bowl that little bit fuller. The big challenge for him would be to find a balance between bowling Test lengths and then be able to bowl short and aggressive, and then switch back to the fuller lengths," Donald says.
Aaron acknowledges Donald's assessment but offers his own reasoning. "I know I have been a little finicky about my bowling technique over the past year. But it is a little hard for most people to understand why I lay so much emphasis on technique. It is just because I have made this change. And bowling with an altered action is not very easy. Your body tends to do what it has been doing for the past few years when it is put under pressure. So if I am not a little anal about my technique, I stand a chance of getting a niggle.
"But AD is right in a way. I should not be paying attention to it at times, but when you have five stress fractures you have to pay attention to it," Aaron says.
He performed his role convincingly in his comeback Test, in Manchester. Clearly the challenge now is for him to go a sustained period without being injured.
"Do we have bowlers who bowl 145kph-plus? There are only two - Aaron and Umesh," Sekhar says. "It is a rare commodity, an all-out fast bowler. These guys need attention from the right kind of coaches in order to keep them stronger for the longer duration."
Having lost two years, Aaron wants to be in the tream for the long haul. "Every time I have gone out injured I was bowling at my best. Every time I step on to the field, let it be training, I just want to bowl at my best. My main aim is to stay injury-free because then I will bowl well. And I just want to play for India for a long time."
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo