Journeyman Vaibhav Arora finally finds his spot for KKR

Vaibhav Arora vs DC
Vaibhav Arora vs DC (PC: X)

The Kolkata Knight Riders have kicked off the 2024 IPL season in impressive fashion, winning all three matches, highlighted by a commanding 106-run victory over the Delhi Capitals in their most recent game at Vizag. While players like Sunil Narine, Andre Russell, Varun Chakaravarthy, and debutant Angkrish Raghuvanshi drew attention with their stellar performances, Vaibhav Arora, who came in as an impact player, somewhat went unnoticed. Before the game, Gautam Gambhir’s words of encouragement with a promise of complete backing regardless of the result, worked wonders for Arora in the game.

Arora, playing for the first time this season, finished with 3/27, showcasing his skill with big in-swingers and deceptive short deliveries, presenting a welcome selection dilemma for the KKR management ahead of future matches. Though he didn’t win the player of the match award, a word of praise from Mitchell Starc, Gautam Gambhir and others from the team, are rewards for Arora.

Arora’s journey has indeed been intriguing. Initially eyeing a professional cricket career with Punjab, he found himself in Himachal Pradesh, where he has become a key player across formats for the state team. In the IPL, Arora served as a net bowler for the Punjab Kings in 2020 but secured a spot with the Kolkata Knight Riders for the 2021 season, where he did not get a chance to play. He was then acquired by the Punjab Kings for a substantial Rs 2 crore during the 2022 season following a bidding war with KKR, but his appearances were limited to just five matches before returning to the Kolkata franchise in 2023. Last season, he played five games and has now made an impressive start to the ongoing campaign. He has found a guiding light in bowling coach Bharat Arun in the KKR support staff, who is working closely on developing the 26-year-old.

“When he got picked up for Punjab Kings as a net bowler in 2020, I used to tell him that you being there in the UAE with the team, getting to see world class players up close will help you learn more than you sitting home, even if you are not playing matches for Punjab regularly,” Vaibhav Arora’s childhood coach Ravi Verma said. He added: “Mayank Yadav is a good example. He was with the Lucknow team for two seasons, didn’t get a single game for whatever reasons, but now when he is playing, all the learnings from the last two seasons are helping him. He is there with legends like Gautam Gambhir, Chandrakant Pandit and Bharat Arun and he praises them all the time for the work they are doing on him.”

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Vaibhav Arora in Training
Vaibhav Arora in Training (PC: X)

What has caught the eye is Arora’s giant in-swing. It has a resemblance to Bhuvneshwar Kumar’s in-swinging deliveries.

“At the beginning, he used to have an out-swinger. He had a few issues with his bowling run-up and action. His head used to drop, his run-up alignment had issues. But as we kept tuning that, his head started to remain still and his wrist position grew stronger. With his wrist position, the in-swing became a natural thing for him,” Arora’s coach explained. “I have always felt that a cricketer will only develop with match-practice and I have always given it to him. We used to travel to Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir, and many other places to play club matches, just for him to learn against better players. I think that helped him a lot.”

Arora’s path has been one of a journeyman. At the age of 14 in 2011, he relocated from hometown Ambala to Chandigarh to pursue his cricketing ambitions. Enrolling in DAV Senior Secondary School, he quickly joined his coach Ravi Verma’s cricket academy. He ended up sharing a strong bond with Arshdeep Singh, who was also his opening bowling partner at Sri Guru Gobind Singh College in Chandigarh.

“He met me at the end of 2010. I was posted in Chandigarh then. His cricket started from there. He was a pacer and used to bat as well,” Verma said. “Earlier on, some even advised him to bat on but looking at his physique and build, we made him pursue fast bowling. When someone is natural, his game is 70 per cent aligned for that only. In Vaibhav’s case of pace bowling. I just had to bring him on track and build it from there.”

Vaibhav Arora with childhood coach, Ravi Verma
Vaibhav Arora with childhood coach, Ravi Verma (PC: Subhayan)

However, the Ambala-born cricketer nearly gave up cricket twice due to financial hardships and a road accident involving his friend Arshdeep. In 2017, during a fast bowling camp at Punjab Cricket Association, they were involved in an unfortunate accident due to dense fog near the IS Bindra Cricket Stadium. Both sustained injuries to their elbows and knees. While Arshdeep recovered quickly and went on to play for India U-19 before securing a spot in the IPL with PBKS in 2018, Arora took some months to recover and faced setbacks. Additionally, Arora faced disappointment when he was selected thrice for the Punjab U-19 team but did not get to play a single match.

However, his coach intervened and persuaded him and his family to allow the talented youngster to chase his cricketing dreams, offering financial support. Eventually, Arora moved to Himachal Pradesh in 2018 to play professional cricket. Though he had early struggles in club cricket there, he left a mark for Kinnaur district and ended up being the highest wicket-taker in the U-23 One Dayers with 26 wickets in nine matches and later making a remarkable debut for the Himachal Pradesh Ranji team against Saurashtra. He returned with best figures of 9/105, including a defence-breaching delivery for the wicket of Cheteshwar Pujara.

“I sent him to play club cricket in Solan, Himachal Pradesh. There were two senior players from Himachal Ranji team. They initially picked him for the trials but later dropped him from the squad. I then sent him to Kinnaur and they kept him. In his first match, around seven to eight catches were dropped off his bowling. He called me in anger furiously asking me how his career would progress if fielders keep dropping catches. He was lambasting the team,” Verma recalls. “I made him understand that if you return then forget about cricket. I challenged him to get wickets in the next game, and he ended up picking a fifer. He was brilliant in district cricket, was the top wicket-taker, across India, in Under-23 One-Day competition and now he is here as a senior pacer for Himachal and a KKR player.”

Vaibhav Arora in action
Vaibhav Arora in action (PC: X)

What qualities stand out in Arora?

“He respects people. He is a very humble kid. Whenever he goes for matches, he calls me to take my blessings. I am privileged to have such a nice student. He is a God-gifted boy to have such a nice quality and being humble. Our cricket pattern has been like this from the beginning. He will respect everyone when he is off the field, but extremely competitive when on the ground,” Verma said. “He called me before the last match to take my blessings. I get emotional thinking that he remembers me amid all the glamour of IPL as well. Though he is a fan of Dale Steyn, I give him the example of Bhuvneshwar Kumar, who also bowls at 130-140kph and makes use of swing.”

Arora’s outstanding performances in domestic competitions were rewarded by KKR again as they roped him back in the 2023 auction. Despite not being a 150kph pacer, Arora was on the verge of travelling with the Indian team to England for the 2023 ICC World Test Championship Final as a net bowler. Fate willed otherwise.

“People have started to take note of his consistency and swing. One fine morning, he got a call from someone in the BCCI and they wanted to take him to England as a net bowler for the World Test Championship final in 2023. I don’t know what happened, that evening he again received a call saying they will take him on some next tour,” revealed Verma. “Selectors and team management take note of everything, the consistency in domestic circuit. He understands that it is not possible to give chance to everyone every time but he also knows that if he has a breakout season then he is close.”

Known for his ability to swing the ball both ways, Arora has made an impressive start to his IPL career in 2024, showcasing his in-swinging yorkers and deceptive bouncers. The KKR faithful would be hoping for consistent outings from him in the remainder of the tournament.

“He has started to execute a good yorker. I used to advise him to learn the yorker and he used to argue who bowls yorkers in day matches. I used to give him examples of Jasprit Bumrah and Lasith Malinga. Now he has started to bowl yorkers, even in death overs. He is working on his outswingers as well. He does that frequently in red-ball matches and will surprise batters in the IPL too,” Verma concluded.

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