WHEN Varun Aaron dismissed Moeen Ali at Old Trafford, it was a seminal moment for Indian cricket. Or so it should have been. For decades, Indians had watched with a mixture of awe and envy, as fast bowlers from other lands, near and far, raided their sentinel without remorse.
Here, in a young man from Jharkhand, they had unearthed their own pace find-a genuine Right Arm Fast. But the diabolical disintegration of the Indian batting line-up from that point on would ensure that Varun’s fire and brimstone was reduced to being a footnote in a disastrous Test series and be dwarfed in the dastardly post-mortems that would follow.
While his son was knocking Ali out in Manchester, Paul Aaron was at work in Pune. He had, however, ensured that the proceedings of the second day’s play of the fourth Test were being recorded back home. And he would sit back later that night at his Viman Nagar apartment, and watch on loop Varun setting the English batsman up with a menacing bouncer before blowing his stumps away with a full-pitched torpedo, his grin growing wider each time he saw him do it.
It was a manner of dismissal that is sure to have made any of the legendary West Indian fast bowlers that the senior Aaron grew up idolizing, nod in approval. The same lot whose stories he would narrate to his ward and eventually inspire him to become a tearaway. Not to forget the holder of the record for the fastest ball to be bowled on Indian soil-the 153 kph-thunderbolt that brought Varun into the limelight back in 2011.
“I would always imagine him picking up wickets the way he got rid of Ali. That’s the actual fast bowler’s way of getting wickets. Softening him up and then bowling him with a brute. That will be one ball that will remain in my memory for a long time,” the senior Aaron tells The Indian Express.
It doesn’t take too long into the conversation to fathom that fast bowling is a family obsession for the Aarons. If the son’s setting pulses racing with his speed now, the father too reminisces about having been an intimidating sight for batsmen in played club cricket. It was an obsession nurtured during long sessions at the dinner table where Varun would sit listening to tales of the cricketing feats of legends like Michael Holding, Dennis Lillee and Malcolm Marshall to name a few.
One though stuck out, and Varun did raise eyebrows earlier in his career when admitting that his fast bowling idol was Andy Roberts-the former West Indian great who had hung up his boots long before he was born.
“Varun started off trying to bowl like Thommo and then moved on to Andy Roberts. Andy was my favourite, and we used to watch a lot of clips of him. I used to love discussing great cricketers with him, especially West Indian and then he was lucky to have Lillee as a mentor at the MRF Pace Academy,” recalls Aaron.
And he sounds every bit the indulgent father when he adds, “I used to bowl a lot at him in the corridor and in gully cricket from a small age. He also could bat. He hasn’t been concentrating on that facet though.”
The senior Aaron is pan-Indian, having shifted base constantly over the last three decades owing to his job. Though originally from Bangalore, he’s plied his trade around the country, Kolkata and Jamshedpur to name a couple, before settling down in Pune. It was in Jamshedpur that Varun’s cricket career took off, where he was picked for the U-15 state team before heading out to MRF in Chennai. Then one day with his father watching from the stands, Varun found the fifth gear that transformed him from fast-medium to fast.
“I had always pushed him to bowl fast, but he was really quick during that U-17 match at the Keenan Stadium. Guys couldn’t face him and they were getting hit. That day we realized he could make it big,” he recalls buoyantly, hardly trying to mask the excitement in his tone.
Varun continued to come up the ranks at the state level before making national headlines after overcoming the 150 kph barrier-unchartered territory for most Indian pacers before him-during an Emerging Players Tournament Down Under in 2010, where he was representing the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) outfit. Facing him that day were the likes of Virat Kohli and Shikhar Dhawan among others.
“He returned from there and was soon drafted into the KKR team, and I recall Sourav Ganguly talking about how impressed he was with Varun’s pace,” says Aaron.
Then came the Duleep Trophy final in 2011, where he set the speed-gun buzzing. Later that year, Varun would don India colours, and make his debut in a dramatic Test against the West Indies at the Wankhede Stadium that ended in a draw despite the scores having been levelled. The Aaron family was there cheering him on, but unfortunately do not have great memories of the nail-biting finish.
“We thought it was going to be a draw and left for Pune on the fifth morning to avoid the Mumbai rush-hour traffic. On the way, we were getting updates. We were just cursing ourselves for having missed out on that finish,” says Aaron. The match would finish with a comical run-out, which involved Varun.
As India headed to Australia at the end of 2011, Varun was looked at as a potential impact-bowler for the Tests, but was ruled out owing to injury before the team’s departure. It wasn’t the first time his body had broken down. This would eventually lead to a fifth stress fracture operation, and stall the youngster’s career for close to two years.
“We were just frustrated at what was happening. But I never saw him sulk or even think of giving up. He got a lot of support from the trainers at NCA and whenever he came to Pune, the first thing he would do is find a place to do his fitness training,” says Aaron.
India return to Australia later this year, and this time around too Varun will be looked at as his captain’s go-to man in the pace attack. His eventual returns from the two Tests at Old Trafford and The Oval may not make for hearty reading-five wickets at 50 apiece and an expensive economy of 4.54.
But there are few who would deny him an entry into India’s emaciated silver lining playbook out of England. No other Indian pacer was as incisive as Varun or created as many chances, and if not for the gruesome manner of the injury it caused, his bouncer to Stuart Broad would have been among the deliveries of the series, along with the one that got Ali.
“I am his harshest critic. He doesn’t call me after a match if he’s not had a great day. When he’s done well too I don’t praise him to the moon. But I must admit there were some spells in there to Cook, where he was brilliant,” he says rather guardedly.
He also does admit that dealing with the cricket-obsessed father and son was not an easy task for the lady of the house. And not just because she had to endure lengthy lectures on cricketers she had hardly heard of.
“We used to break a few things in the house while playing, and that’s when she would get mad. There was never a fight for the remote. I realized the potential of a dispute early, and bought two TV’s for the house,” says Aaron.
Floyd, a favourite
It’s not just their unbridled love for cricket that unites the Aaron boys. They even sound like each other, and relish the same taste in music, proudly claiming to be Floydians.
“His favourite band is Pink Floyd because he grew up listening to them thanks to me. But it’s not reciprocated. I can’t stand the trance he listens to. He’s an old and a new kind of chap. New because of his acquaintances and old because of his tastes in life,” the father explains.
Growing up, the senior Aaron was keen that his son learns to play the guitar too, but Varun couldn’t find the time for it, considering he was away pushing opposition batting line-ups on to the back-foot, both literally and figuratively. But he’s not complaining till the time he sees batsmen like Ali being ‘softened up before being cleaned up’.