On the eve of the India-West Indies match in Chennai, I visited the MRF Pace academy, a few minutes away not too far from the Chidambaram Stadium. Nestled in a leafy corner on the campus of the Madras Christian College Higher Secondary School in Chetpet, the Academy wasn’t easy to locate.
But having arrived there, I realised it wasn’t the best time of the year to be visiting. The training season was a few months away. The Academy looked quiet, empty. On the practice wickets, a few youngsters were having an evening knockabout. I caught their attention as I walked past the Academy gates.
Upon closer inspection, one of them turned out to be an India discard from the mid-00s, now with an IPL team. It seemed he had gained weight. Or maybe the myth about TV adding 10 pounds works the other way around.
Two boys were in the academy gym. One of them walked out, and I chatted him up about what was going on at the academy. He said his name was Varun. He played for MRF; that he had been training at the Academy for nearly six years. After a small chat, he returned to the gym.
A few minutes later, the lone trainer present at the gym walked out. I asked him about any interesting talents who’d been to the Academy lately. He pointed to the boy I had been speaking to. “That’s Varun there,” he said.
“He is India’s fastest bowler.”
During the course of the evening, much was learnt about Varun Aaron, where he came from and what he was capable of.
The 21-year-old grew up in Jamshedpur and represents Jharkhand in domestic cricket. His claim to fame? In the recently concluded Vijay Hazare Trophy, in the final against Gujarat, Aaron clocked 153.4 KMPH, making him the fastest Indian bowler on record. [Here’s a fan video of the event]
Aaron had been with Kolkata Knight Riders the previous season. A stress fracture of the back kept him out of action. He was fit for the last four games of the tournament, but didn't get a break. With due apologies to Burt Munro, Delhi Daredevils, not he, can lay claim on the world’s fastest Indian now.
A lot of Indian pacers in recent times have made impressive beginnings, but then lost their edge quickly. Irfan Pathan bowled in the high 140s on his debut series in Australia. Munaf Patel was, at one time, touted to be the fastest in India. Zaheer Khan used to be much quicker, but has eschewed pace for control. The list goes on.
Aaron, however says, he's not about to give up on pace.
"Bowling quick is what I do best. I am not going to change my thinking because I will be bowling to international players in a Twenty20 match," Aaron told TOI recently, adding that "I can assure you that I'll be the quickest Indian bowler in IPL if I get the chance to play."
Aaron has recovered from the stress fracture. He says he has made corrections to his bowling action. It used to be left-heavy — the reason for the fracture — but he is now running in straight.
His action is uncomplicated, smooth, economical. Like Glenn McGrath, he has no exaggerated movement of limbs. He shuffles towards the bowling crease with his shoulders low, butt jutting out. There's no pronounced leap at the crease, just a little pop. He remains straight-on, unlike lots of express-quick bowlers. It would seem he's just another seamer running in to hurl a harmless delivery. But a really quick whip of the right arm and wrist follows, and the ball flies at speeds unheard of in Indian cricket.
25 wickets in 11 First Class games may not seem like much. But he's done better in limited overs cricket. He has two fivers in 11 games in which he has taken 23 wickets. He's learnt things from Dennis Lillee at the Academy and Wasim Akram at the KKR.
The Academy's former chief coach TA Sekhar is excited by Aaron. "He should be groomed properly and the national selectors should keep an eye on him," he said. Also, like most quick bowlers, Aaron is a strongly-built boy capable of big-hitting, as he has shown in domestic cricket. His batting strike rate in 50-over cricket is 158.
On Sunday, Delhi Daredevils play the first game of the IPL against Mumbai Indians. Delhi is a team without many big-ticket players. KKR didn't give Aaron a break. But perhaps, it is time for the Daredevils to let the 'Tatanagar Express' loose.