It’s that time of the year when players across India are preparing themselves for arguably the biggest tournament in the calendar – the Indian Premier League.
One experienced Indian pacer went unsold in the player auction, but is still training as hard, getting in shape for a different kind of challenge altogether. Varun Aaron, by his own admission, was ‘shocked’ to not be picked by any IPL franchise, but used it as a ‘massive blessing in disguise’ to sign up for a county stint with Leicestershire.
Aaron was in the mix for Team India not too long ago, with Virat Kohli showing an inclination towards raw pace in his early days as captain. But as India went on to develop a formidable pace unit, the Jharkhand bowler fell out of favour and has not played international cricket since the South Africa home series in November 2015. He then missed a majority of the following domestic season with a bruised heel. Just when he seemed to have come out of that with a full season last year, another setback ensued when he found no takers in the IPL.
Aaron hopes to change the trend with his second county stint, having already experienced it earlier for a brief while with Durham in 2014 after India’s tour of England. He’s doing all he can to make this stint count; Aaron is working on his skills at the MRF Pace Foundation in Chennai – a place he calls his second home – and on fitness with Sudarshan, the former India trainer.
“This time it’s going to be a lot different. I’m starting the season for Leicestershire, it’s a great challenge,” he tells Wisden India. “India is touring England straight after that. I’d be silly to say I am not thinking about it. But my main focus will be to have a positive impact on Leicestershire.
“Bowling in English conditions every day is different for an Indian bowler. You have to be spot on with basic things – wrist position and stuff. When the cloud cover comes on, if you’re off a little, it becomes exaggerated especially when you’re bowling fast. After the England tour (2014), I felt I was bowling at my best. In India, the ball hardly moves so even if you’re off a little bit, you can still bowl where you wanted to bowl. With a moving ball, the challenge is more and you need more concentration to land the ball where you want to.”
“When you have a good IPL season the previous year, you usually get picked the next year. But it took me just five minutes to get out of it and realise it’s not the end of the world.”
The control that Aaron speaks about is one of the big challenges all ‘raw’ pacers like him face. It’s perhaps a reason why his economy in nine Tests is 4.77 and in nine ODIs is above six. Aaron, though, suggests it has been improving with experience.
“Control hasn’t been a real issue. When I came into the scene in 2010-11, maybe yeah, I didn’t have that control I wanted to. After that, it’s been really good,” he says. “In the current Ranji Trophy season, I was going at an economy of 2.95 or something (3.21). In the past, the economy used to be 3.5 to 3.8. As you grow older, you realise you have to play a waiting game. I was very aggressive, it was just my nature – I just wanted to get wickets. You end up bowling high risk balls – it’s good but you should know when to switch it on and simmer it down. Experience teaches you that.
“The last season, we played on some really flat tracks with only one seamer. I bowled 140 overs in a span of five games and got 15 wickets. I was satisfied personally. If somebody else looked at it, it won’t look really impressive. But I know what conditions we played on and how much I had to try to get every single wicket. Out of four games, two were in Ranchi and the other in Jamshedpur. They’re not just flat, they’re pretty dead.”
Aaron realises all these could be seen as excuses. Statistics aren’t necessarily the best criteria to judge performances of an Indian pacer in domestic cricket, but Aaron is clear in his head that such explanations won’t help and has switched his primary focus to improving numbers.
“Numbers are extremely important. There’s no two ways about it – at the end of the day, it’s on paper and it’s tangible,” he says. “It’s the safe way to go for everybody – not just with cricket, but statistically anything, even multinational companies and stuff like that. The only way I can make a comeback to the Indian team is by getting wickets. When you’re looking to make a comeback, you can’t just say that you’re bowling well and stuff like that. It doesn’t really count. No matter what wicket I get, I have to get back to the Indian team.
However, he doesn’t shy away from expressing his disappointment at not even being kept in the loop by the current selection committee, or the national team management.
“There hasn’t been any communication,” he rues. “In 2016, I played against Australia A in the four-dayers, after that there has been no communication. It has been that way for the last one and a half years.
“Every selection committee comes with a different view of looking at things. I don’t know what the views of the current committee are. The previous selection committee believed a lot in me – Sandeep Patil, Saba Karim and those guys. Back then, if I was not in the Indian team, I used to get a chance in India A or Irani. At least back then, I was getting chances to prove myself at a proper level and make comebacks.
“The last year has been a little different. I’ve not been given a shot at all to prove myself. That has been a little disappointing. I’m pretty young – I’m not past 30, fit and bowling well. Looking back, I feel the least a selection committee should give somebody who has played for India or who has done well in the past are games like Irani Trophy or India A.”
While the lack of communication from the national set-up was a ‘disappointment’, the IPL rejection was a ‘surprise’ more than anything else. Aaron says he wasn’t affected by it much, as he had even planned to give the tournament a miss for county even last year.
“I found it a little shocking, to be honest. It wasn’t difficult by any means for me to handle it because I know the calibre of player I am,” he says of not being picked in the IPL. “Even in the previous year, I had a good season with Kings XI (Punjab). Basically, I never saw it coming. When you have a good IPL season the previous year, you usually get picked the next year. I’ve always been going for a good price in the IPL – it’s not like I go for Rs 30-40 lakh. But it took me just five minutes to get out of it and realise it’s not the end of the world.
“Even last year, I was contemplating not playing IPL and going to play county cricket. I spoke to a few senior cricketers and they were like ‘No, you’re not in the Indian team and you should play IPL, it’s something everyone looks at’, and stuff like that. I listened to them. As things have panned out, by default I’m not playing the IPL this year. In a way, I’m getting what I wanted to because I feel a season of county cricket would help me achieve my potential as a bowler. I still feel I have 30-40% more to go. I know if I can tap that undiscovered potential, things will be different. Things will fall in place.
“It’s a massive blessing in disguise. That’s the way I look at it. This is just one small blimp which wouldn’t matter if I achieve my potential and have a killer six-seven years. I’m happy this has come now and not later.”
“Numbers are extremely important. There’s no two ways about it – at the end of the day, it’s on paper and it’s tangible. It’s the safe way to go for everybody.”
Wanting to skip IPL for county cricket, and terming the rejection a blessing in disguise… does Aaron really mean it? What would he do if an IPL team approaches him as a replacement option now?
“I won’t take it. I’m very clear on that. I’m going to play for Leicestershire,” he stresses. “If I play for a franchise one week after my chat with you, everything I’ve said now will be bull-shit. Right? I’m very clear in my head that I won’t play IPL this year, even if I get a call from some team. I’ve committed to Leicestershire and I’m going to fulfill my commitment. Whatever comes with that, I won’t have any regrets.
“I feel I have a long journey to go. I have real belief in myself. That’s why I’m still playing the game. I don’t want to slog on till 35 just playing Ranji Trophy. I want to win games for India. I want to be one of India’s fast bowlers to remember.”