It’s usually the action on-field that is caught by the camera. But there are several stories of youngsters like Varun Aaron and Ishwar Pandey that fail to make headlines but are nevertheless inspiring
Cricket throws up fascinating stories. The travails of the protagonists as they chase dreams can be as engrossing as on-field heroics.
Young Varun Aaron wanted to bowl fast. His inspiration? An Antiguan great named Andy Roberts, who blended extreme speeds with exceptional control.
Aaron’s father made him watch old videos of Roberts’ exploits and the lad had made up his mind — he would strive to bowl quick. Images of stumps being knocked down flashed across his mind.
Ishwar Pandey began playing the game on the dusty streets of Rewa, a small town in Madhya Pradesh. And he did so with a tennis ball, making it swing and bounce, and picking up wickets by the dozen.
At that point, all Pandey desired was to enjoy the game in its pure, undiluted form. Playing representative cricket was farthest from his mind.
Out of nowhere, a talent scout spotted him and soon Pandey was making heads turn when he played in the State under-19 team. He climbed up the rungs in a jiffy. In 2012-13, Pandey was the highest wicket-taker in the Ranji Trophy with 48 scalps from eight matches. He looks at the coming season with optimism.
Aaron too surveys the days ahead with hope. Just 23, he already bears the scars of a veteran. Suffering stress fractures of the back on four occasions, he last underwent a surgery on his lumbar vertebrae in London, in February, this year.
Clear-headed and focussed, Aaron does not want to compromise on speed. “Pace and reverse swing are my strengths. I still want to bowl fast,” says the young man from Jharkhand, who has operated at speeds close to and beyond the 150 kmph mark.
At different stations of their cricketing journey, Aaron and Pandey meet at the MRF Pace Foundation where pace bowling legend Glenn McGrath guides them. Here, they get mentally tougher even as chinks that might have crept into their bowling are ironed out.
Aaron played a lone Test for India — against the West Indies in Mumbai in 2011 — scalping three, and then represented India in four ODIs claiming six wickets before a back injury proved a roadblock.
“I cannot forget the moment when V.V.S. Laxman gave me my Test cap,” he recalls. After an unrewarding first day on a flat track, Aaron came back strongly and his cherished moment arrived when he had Darren Bravo caught behind the stumps. “I wanted to pitch the ball up to the left hander, move it away, and draw him into a stroke.” The plan worked.
This was also a phase when Aaron slipped into bad habits vis-à-vis his action. A front-on bowler, he was now bowling with a mixed action — this put his back under enormous strain — and consequently broke down. The bottom half and top half of his body moved in opposite directions, a dangerous counter-rotation.
After considerable work at the MRF Pace Foundation, Aaron has now switched to a semi-open release that has taken the load off his back. He is eyeing a September return to competitive cricket.
Says head coach at the Pace Foundation M. Senthilnathan: “The semi-open is the safest and the most injury-free action. The alignment is in one line with a shorter lever. The back-foot landing faces squarish fine-leg and the front foot toe looks down the wicket.”
The tall Pandey has a high-arm action and bowls at a lively pace around the off-stump. Says Senthilnathan: “He gets the ball to cut off the seam. Pandey hits the deck and bowls between 135 and 140 kmph and probes the batsmen.”
The 23-year-old Pandey is pleased at his rich haul last season. He recalls a particular dismissal. “I got the ball to lift and move away from Wasim Jaffer. He was looking to play it to mid-wicket and ended up edging to the slips. That was satisfying.”
Son of an armyman, Pandey acknowledges the contribution of his captain in the Madhya Pradesh team, Devendra Bundela, and his fitness trainer at MRF, Rajnikant, in adding weight to his cricketing and physical attributes.
In different ways, Aaron and Pandey find themselves at the crossroads of their careers. The days that beckon should be interesting. Cricketing tales hang on slender threads.