“I feel motivation is always something which is internal and not external. I don’t really have to rely on what the situation is externally to feel motivated or anything like that. My motivation has always been high and that’s why I play the game.”
Even in these unprecedented times, with frustration and self-doubt creeping in among players after months of being locked down, Varun Aaron is brimming with positivity.
Aaron has experienced great pain and gone through a lot in his start-stop career but the one thing he’s not been short of at any point in life is motivation.
It’s his passion for the sport that keeps him going. It’s the drive to win matches for his team that keeps him pushing on. And it’s the drive to play for India once again that keeps him motoring forward.
The whole world, cricket included, has had to adapt to the constraints of Coronavirus. Aaron, however, is no stranger to isolation. He has been in the confines of his home for months on end many times in the past. Injury after injury has made him endure a bumpy ride in his career. Recent times, though, have been ironic given the fact that he was sitting at home fully fit feeling better than ever. It nonetheless provided him with time to think and the announcement that IPL would still take place breathed some much-needed excitement into his year.
“I feel like these were really good times to pause and introspect and see how you would want to go about your game and your lifestyle,” Aaron says.
“The IPL being announced was not just a massive relief, but more than that, we can finally get onto the field, play games, and do what we love doing the most.”
When Aaron burst onto the scene as a 22-year-old tearaway fast bowler, he was exhilarating. A genuine fast bowler who could hit 140-150 kmph consistently, a rare commodity in the Indian bowling arsenal. He showed glimpses of his gifts by swinging them, pinging helmets (ask Stuart Broad), smacking gloves, and shattering stumps (ask Moeen Ali).
Australia pace legend Glenn McGrath rated Aaron highly and five years ago said that India were ‘lucky’ to have two truly fast bowlers in him and Umesh Yadav. However, injuries were a constant thorn in his vulnerable flesh and that coupled with inconsistencies and limited opportunities derailed his career. He last played for India five years ago against South Africa in the rain-affected Bengaluru Test where he bowled a beauty to clean up Hashim Amla.
The last 2-3 years, though, have brought about the Jharkhand pacer’s resurrection. He’s performed well on the domestic circuit, especially in white-ball cricket. He showed shades of the old Aaron in last year’s IPL against KKR, swinging them at pace and shattering stumps to earn the Man of the Match award.
Aaron is slowly getting back to his best and more importantly, he’s stayed injury-free.
“I am really grateful that I’ve had a good run,” he continues. “Niggles happen on and off with fast bowlers, that’s just part and parcel of the game but nothing really serious. I’ve been on top of my physical game and my bowling for the past two years at least. I am sure it will continue that way.”
Aaron has suffered seven… wait…it’s “eight stress fractures”, he corrects this correspondent. He has constantly shifted from one operation table to another and faced long injury lay-offs. The body has taken a battering but every time Aaron has got up with the same energy and verve. He doesn’t want to gain sympathy neither does he want to curse his luck. Yes, the times were tough but they were a great teacher as well.
“It was tough. But I don’t really want to make a big deal of it because it was something that just happened,” Aaron explains. “But at the end of the day, it has also given great learning. You just tend to understand what the important things in life are, who the important people are, and how you want to go about your life as a human being not just as a cricketer.
“Those times obviously were tough, not playing the game and having surgeries and stuff like that but it certainly taught me a lot and the reason I am still playing the game and still bowling at my best and bowling quick, quicker than I have ever bowled, is because, in those times, I have learned a lot. There are 2 ways to look at it, one is to look away and curse your luck and be down or learn from it. I chose the latter.”
So what was going wrong all these years? Why was he suffering so many injuries? Why wasn’t Aaron fit?
Well, fitness was never a problem, it was the nature of his injuries that was the major concern.
“Most of the injuries were absolutely out of my control,” Aaron explains. “Because when you have muscle injuries then it can sometimes be attributed to not training enough or being unfit and stuff like that. But I’ve always had a very high level of fitness ever since I’ve been playing professional cricket. Most of my injuries were bony injuries and bony injuries are those that sometimes you just can’t control.
“All my stress fractures were because…when I was younger it was sometimes because of over-bowling and my action wasn’t really right. And anybody who bowls in excess of 140 kmph when they are 18, 19, 20, they are bound to get stress fractures. All throughout the world, all fast bowlers who bowl quick at a young age have had stress fractures because the body is not designed to take those forces.
“So, I had the bulk of my stress fractures before I was 23, after that, I might have had a couple but it didn’t really bother me that much because by that time I had reached a pain threshold where I could just play with the pain and not really care about the pain that much. But when I was younger they were more serious, lower down the back and I had to get operated and really couldn’t bowl. So one (reason) is obviously because of faulty action. Then, because it’s just the nature of what I do as the body is not meant to take those forces and thirdly, sometimes I just over-bowled, it was nothing else.”
With experience, Aaron has matured. He has started understanding his body a lot better and he’s got a lot smarter. The training procedures haven’t changed much – it’s the decision-making that has. Earlier he used to train 14 times a week, now he trains 10 times. The intensity is still high but the pacer gives his body a lot of time to recover. It might sound like a small change but it’s actually hugely important.
“I know when to take a break, when to push, what my body needs. I am a lot conscientious about the decisions I take about my body. So that also definitely helps because playing domestic cricket for almost 10 years now you tend to have a decent knowledge bank as to how your body functions.
“In the past, I used to overplay more. I just pushed my body to its absolute limit every single time I played. But then I sat down with really good physiotherapists and trainers and they were like ‘Man! You have got to go a bit easy’. Because sometimes just pushing yourself all the time is not good for your body. It can actually be a deterrent instead of being something that increases your capability. So, I have just become a little smarter as to how much I should push my body and not go flat out every single time. That has actually made a difference.”
When your body has gone through so much, the first natural reaction is to cut down on pace. Many have done it in the past and for some, the process happens gradually. But that’s something that Aaron hasn’t compromised on. Every time he got out of his bed, he thought about just one thing – bowling fast.
“That’s something (reducing pace) that never crossed my mind, ever. That is totally against my nature. I couldn’t think of myself bowling slow. At the end of the day, I am someone who took up the sport because I really enjoyed it and really enjoyed bowling fast. And the day I don’t enjoy bowling fast, that’s the day I wouldn’t play the sport anymore.”
It is a thankless and relentless job but it’s this unconditional love for the art that keeps Aaron ticking.
“Fast bowling is life,” Aaron says. “For somebody who bowls fast, not medium-fast or medium, we’ve got to literally live fast bowling every day of our lives. There are no off days, there are hardly any holidays. If you are not playing a season then you are spending an off season trying to get yourself fit for the next season again. The only time I might get off is when I don’t play the game anymore. In the past 11 years, I may have had just one holiday. At the end of the day, you’ve got to love, live, dream, eat, smell, and drink fast bowling. That’s the way it is.”
Aaron was clocking around 145 kmph consistently in the last IPL. He hasn’t brought any major changes to his action or run-up. He’s added smarts to his pace to make it a lethal combo. The county stint for Leicestershire in 2018, where he impressed and played a crucial role in helping them win their first game for 19 matches, has helped him add another dimension to his bowling. The flat tracks in the Royal London ODI Cup made him think of different things to adapt.
“I’ve just got in more variations into my bowling which has helped me in T20 cricket. More than anything else, County cricket is very important which played a big hand for me in moving the ball. Earlier, I could just move the ball away but now I also bring the ball in. So, it’s just developing more skills and variations than just bowling fast.
“In England, more batsmen tend to leave the ball knowing that it is going to swing away or beat the bat. But if you have an inswinger along with an outswinger, you tend to get more wickets. The confidence that I got out of there moving the ball was great because you also have conditions that are more suitable for swing bowling as well. If you are bowling swing you should exploit it way more than in India. And after that, when I came back to India, I had a really good run in Vijay Hazare and for India A and IPL as well. That’s something that gave me a lot of confidence and new insight into bowling.”
Apart from the inswinger, leg cutters and knuckle balls have also been added to the arsenal. It took slightly longer to add these different variations but with constant injuries, Aaron wasn’t getting the time and chance to develop, work, and perfect a particular skill. However, in the last couple of years, more time has been dedicated in the nets to working on variations and accuracy rather than gym and rehabilitation.
“Dennis Lillee taught me the leg cutter back in 2015 when I had gone to Perth,” Aaron says. “It’s not an easy ball. You have to really perfect it to be able to bowl it. So that’s something which I have been working for a long time and now it’s coming out really well, the leg cutter and knuckle ball. These are the things I have been working on for a period of time and they are coming good now and giving me results now in the last two years.”
A refreshed Aaron could be a vital cog in Rajasthan Royals’ bid to end the trophy drought. The prospect of sharing the new ball with Jofra Archer and unleashing a pace barrage will leave fans salivating. Add Aaron’s drive and unselfish nature to it and you get a lethal combo. The personal goals take a backseat.
“The most important goal for me is to help the team win every single match which will obviously help us win the trophy because RR won the first IPL and after that, we haven’t won the trophy yet. The team is really hungry. We’ve put in a lot of resources to get the right players and we’ve got a great bunch of support staff. I think I have played for a few teams and RR has one of the best atmospheres. All the players really feel that we owe it to the team to get them across the line and win the IPL. The motivation of winning my team a game helps me bowl better and get wickets,” the RR pacer says.
Aaron is 30 now. He feels that fast bowlers are that their peak between the age of 28 to 34. He’s entered that zone. There’s so much to play for. There’s so much to achieve. And there is one thing that will keep pushing him to the limits.
“I am playing the game to play for the country and there’s no other reason. After all the history I’ve had with injuries, I still bowl at 150. I still push my body every single day of the year to do those things. It’s only because of the fire that burns inside to play for the country and nothing else.”