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Monday, October 24, 2011

Varun Aaron - an encouraging debut

Varun Aaron had a superb debut.
Varun Aaron has long generated buzz because he's been touted as amongst the quickest bowlers in India. There were many people eagerly anticipating a debut for the young pacer as early as the Indian team's tour of England, but Aaron remained a passenger there. With Umesh Yadav injured and the return series sealed, Aaron finally got his chance. And it was quite a collective meeting-of-expectations that Aaron pulled off in his international debut. 

Before singing the hosannas though, let's backtrack a little and take a reality check. 

Aaron was up against the English ODI side in India - and England in India in ODIs have not been a force for a long time. He was carefully shielded by Dhoni from bowling in the power-plays, and only bowled when there was full freedom to set the field. The batsmen he dismissed were Numbers 8,9 and 10. Even Tim Bresnan (one of Aaron's wickets) - the highest scorer in the England innings - has never in his life batted at Number 6 or higher in either his ODI or Test batting career. And most important of all, India - or the Indian cricket fan to be more accurate - has gone through several heart-breaking false dawns of the 'next great pace hope' kinds. Apart from Zaheer Khan, none of those who promised much have delivered anywhere close to it so far. 

And yet, in spite of these factors, it may - just may - be time for some optimism. For the more adventurous fan, it may be time for a quiet little jig too. Here's why. 

Consider the situation Aaron was facing before the match. There had been virtually ceaseless build-up about him, about how he was going to be almost a saviour of sorts to a pace-starved nation. Never mind that he hadn't played more than 12 matches in either First Class cricket or List A limited-overs matches so far. Never mind that at 140 clicks he might have been among the faster Indians around, but he was far from being amongst the quickest in the world. Never mind that he was born barely two weeks before Sachin Tendulkar made his international debut, and was still a very young man. That kind of pressure of expectation alone is enough to stifle anyone, and yet Aaron didn't let it stifle him. It may have seemed as if Dhoni was wrapping him in cotton-wool and not trusting him enough when he wasn't given the ball in the power-play overs, but Dhoni might just have been giving Aaron the biggest vote of confidence of all. The expectations would have created sufficient internal pressure for Aaron, and it is unreasonable to expect someone as young and raw to handle it coolly straight away. By minimizing at least whatever external pressures he could, Dhoni recognized that maybe Aaron was a player worth investing in for the future and that his present therefore had to be handled carefully lest he implode. Dhoni thus gave Aaron as much of a controlled setting as was possible. He (and the rest of the team and nation) could only hope that Aaron grabbed his chance. 

Now consider the match situations in which Aaron bowled. When he was introduced into the attack, England were cruising at 61/2 in 10 overs, with Trott and Pietersen having both spent some time in the middle and both batting at good strike-rates. Aaron proceeded to give just 3 runs in his first over and 3 in his second. An attempted yorker in his third over went wrong and Pietersen deposited it to the boundary which made his third over a tad expensive at 8 runs, but aside from that one bad ball, Aaron had a pretty good first international spell. In summary, he came on to bowl at a fairly challenging situation in the match and held his own. 

His second spell came when India were much better placed. England had slipped to 192/7 in 40 overs when Aaron returned with Bresnan and Borthwick at the crease. It was the sort of score from which teams had routinely added 40-50 frustrating lower-order runs against India with the tail never being knocked off as quickly as it should have been. Aaron's first over did nothing to indicate matters were going to be otherwise, with Bresnan even creaming him through the covers for a boundary off the second ball of the over. That however, would be the last boundary Aaron would concede on his debut. In his next over, he cleaned up Borthwick and didn't give a run away. In the next one, it was Stuart Meaker that lost his stumps. And off the first ball of his next over, Aaron bowled a superb delivery that appeared to have just beaten Bresnan, but actually ended up clipping the stumps. The tail had been effectively cleaned up and in what was probably the most pleasing thing to Aaron about his wickets, each one was 'bowled' - the classic fast bowler's dismissal. 

The last time a young Indian bowler came on the scene who was capable of cleaning out batsmen like that - who actually did it on his debut and caused great excitement among Indian fans - was Zaheer Khan in 2000. Zaheer's debut was against Kenya in which he took 3/48 (a figure bettered by Aaron), but it was his next match that fully showcased his exciting potential. That was against Australia 4 days later and Zaheer dismissed Gilchrist and Steve Waugh - the latter memorably yorked. 

Aaron, of course, has a long, long way to go before he can even think of filling in Zaheer's boots. But the fact that he has begun as encouragingly as he has, is very good for a start. Now, all it needs is for the BCCI to find a way to not let his development go the way the vast majority of other fast-bowling hopes development has.

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