Bowling as fast as possible and plotting an India comeback - Varun Aaron has never wavered from two of his primary goals all these years. This despite having last played for India in 2015 and having to deal with injuries and fitness issues through most of his career. Somewhere between his debut as a 21-year old who relentlessly bowled in the range of 150kph to a 30-year old unwilling to compromise on his pace despite injury setbacks, Aaron feels he has learnt how to be "mentally strong" and "keep things simple" on the field.
"Being in and out [of the Indian team] helps you," Aaron told ESPNcricinfo. "More than the game it helps you value so many different things in life. The game's always there but when you're in and out, you see so many different sides of people, you see so many situations. When you're getting injured when you're young, you are always going to come from behind which helps you get mentally strong. I've had injuries in the past and have learnt a lot from it and I don't find myself stuck with what's happened previously.
"My biggest learning is to keep things simple. Because when you are younger [there is] a whole different gamut of things - you want to do this and that - but I think knowing your strengths and keeping things simple is the most important thing."
With India making a big leap in the fast bowling department in the last few years, including boasting an impressive bench strength in all three formats, Aaron still believes a comeback - by making his IPL performances speak - is possible. He made his Test debut nine years ago but never broke into India's T20I side, despite regularly featuring in the IPL and for Jharkhand in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy in the last couple of years. Aaron had quite an impressive 2019-20 season, when he picked ten wickets in eight matches. He was part of three different sides in the IPL before the Royals pouched him last season, when he played five out of their 14 matches and picked four wickets.
"Having a good IPL and winning matches for Rajasthan Royals and helping us win the trophy is the simplest way to make a India comeback," Aaron said. "I've said and I always say that the only reason I play the game is to play for the country, and there's nothing else that keeps me as motivated."
Aaron has managed to stay injury-free in the last couple of years and he attributes a large part of maintaining his fitness levels to Steffan Jones, the Royals' fast bowling development coach. Jones, who has trained the likes of Stuart Broad, Shaun Tait and Dan Christian during the 2017 Big Bash League, has been part of the Royals set up since 2018. Aaron was also part of a preparatory camp hosted by the Royals under Jones earlier this year, and he explained what makes Jones stand out.
"I really enjoyed working with Steffan last year and then consequently after the IPL I went and spent some more time with him in England. He's a fast bowling coach who really bridges the gap between fast bowling and strength and conditioning, which is rare. But Steffan brings those aspects together really well. It's really important for a fast bowling coach to have a really good knowledge of strength and conditioning. He's like a catalyst which joins both. I had a decent knowledge of my body and what I needed to do. But meeting Steffan has given me a different sight to it and how I can always be powerful throughout a long season. It's just more of a different side of training rather than conventional training or gym work.
"I train myself actually. I consult Steffan and Rajnikanth (his fitness trainer at the MRF Pace Foundation) whenever I have doubts and stuff but just training over the years and training a lot, I have a decent grasp of what I need to do myself. During the lockdown I was focusing on getting into a good routine instead of just pushing myself too much and burning out and not being regular. I think lot of guys struggled to be regular during lockdown and my goal was to be regular. First of all, I worked through stuff which I felt I need to work on which was things like stability. Towards the end, I got in touch with Steffan and Rajnikanth to help me out with more specific stuff I needed.
"I used to be injury prone and most of it used to be related to my back which wasn't in my control. I've reached a space where I've got a grip on my body and what my body needs to last through a tournament. I don't see any issues or me having to do anything to stay fit because I've been fit for almost two to three years without injury."
Conditions in the UAE are expected to help the slower bowlers, especially as the tournament progresses, but Aaron sees this as an opportunity for fast bowlers to bring out their variations. While saying that the biggest misconception about him during his younger days was that he lacked variations, Aaron believes that in the end it all comes down to the execution of those variations.
"The biggest plus is that they really want to bowl fast all the time which I enjoy, because I understand where they are in their head - because I was there when I was 19 and I'm still there."Varun Aaron on Rajasthan Royals' young quicks
"Bowling fast is definitely what I love doing but at the same time being adaptable is really important," he said. "I don't mind the wickets being slow at all because that bring in an opportunity to bowl so many variations which I've been working on. I have been bowling the knuckle ball for a while now and it has been coming out really well. If you're playing at this level you more or less know how to bowl every single variation but the point is how well you can bowl it, how consistently you can bowl it and how deceptive it can be.
"I don't think the wickets are going to be that slow to start with; they might be a bit quick to start off with. It's going to be a long tournament if the wickets are slow from day one, then at the end we're just going to have dust bowls. So I think the curators will make sure there are good wickets to start off with and just because of the nature of how many games you're going to play in a certain venue, the wickets are going to deteriorate."
The Royals have a well-stocked pace department, and watching some of the younger quicks reminds Aaron of his younger days.
"They [the young quicks] are just full of energy and the biggest plus is that they really want to bowl fast all the time which I enjoy, because I understand where they are in their head - because I was there when I was 19 and I'm still there. Even today I want to bowl faster and increase my pace and I try to do everything I can. Ankit [Rajpoot] and Akash [Singh] are really keen to learn and they're hungry to play and that's what you want from youngsters.
"You really don't want to keep teaching them stuff. I've spoken to them and I've told them if they ever want anything, call me up I'm always open. But I believe giving space to youngsters to experience and learn things themselves is equally important because sometimes we can go overboard with bombarding them with information."
Sruthi Ravindranath is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo