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Ace of Pace: Navdeep Saini is Indian cricket’s latest bullet train

A wiry Navdeep Saini once forced local batsmen to strap on abdomen guards, channelling his whippy tennis-ball bowling action to strike terror in faint hearts. Now the 26-year-old paceman, who makes his debut in the Caribbean, has bulked up to sustain the 150 kph assault. The Indian Express travels to Saini’s village, returning with tales of Indian cricket’s latest bullet train.

Written by Vishal Menon |
Updated: August 4, 2019 9:11:32 am
Ace of Pace Navdeep too loved sending stumps flying and was very serious about pursuing cricket, but didn’t have a definitive roadmap for his cricketing aspirations.

Growing up in Taraori, a dusty Haryana town dotted with paddy fields and rice mills a 12 km drive from Karnal along NH 44, Indian cricket’s latest pace sensation Navdeep Saini didn’t get much adult attention beyond his home. The elders of this farming community of close to 30,000 were way too busy growing and selling their produce to notice a bunch of kids who used to regularly use sacks of grains as stumps for their tennis ball cricket games.

However, most of the kids who faced the teenaged Saini in Taraori’s mill compound still get nightmares recalling the time they spent facing the pacer, who at 26 consistently touches 150kph, an attribute that played a big role in him getting a place in India’s shorter-version squads for the West Indies tour. The story goes that such was Saini’s aura that batsmen would come armed with an abdomen guard when facing the short and skinny boy who could hurl a tennis ball at lightning pace.

Navdeep too loved sending stumps flying and was very serious about pursuing cricket, but didn’t have a definitive roadmap for his cricketing aspirations. All that changed in the winter of 2010, with the advent of the Karnal Premier League — a 6-team T20 extravaganza played with a leather ball on turf under floodlights.

Also read: Debutant Saini takes three wickets as India beat West Indies by four wickets in the series opener in Florida

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The village IPL of sorts had everything — there were trials, an auction and also cash. A player of Saini’s skills could easily earn close to Rs 10,000 while being part of this week-long fest. The idea was conceptualised by Sumit Narwal, a former Delhi cricketer and a Karnal native, and executed by his brother Amit.

Karnal’s T20 dhamaka posed a challenge for the Taraori Express. It was to be the first of many high hurdles he would make a habit of clearing. He had never bowled with a hard ball nor was he used to playing in front of a crowd.

It didn’t matter. As has been the case with generations of Pakistan pacers who got initiated into cricket on the taped tennis-ball circuit, Saini’s transition to the leather ball was seamless. He didn’t lose speed or accuracy. He wasn’t just the find of that year’s T20 league but his lively spells under Karnal’s night sky fast-tracked him to the fringe of first-class cricket.

Delhi Ranji pacer Sumit, who moonlighted as a T20 organiser, was thoroughly impressed by Saini and took him to the Feroze Shah Kotla as a net bowler for Delhi’s Ranji Trophy squad.

Ace of Pace Navdeep Saini’s father Amarjeet and grandfather Karam Singh at their residence in Taraori; Singh was a former subedar with the Indian National Army . (Express photo by Gajendra Yadav)

“The league wound up the following year, but I guess it was just the kind of exposure Navi had yearned for. Seeing him, Sumit bhai took him to Delhi and the rest, as they say, is history,” was how Navdeep’s childhood friend Mohit Kalyan, a stodgy opener in the Haryana Ranji Trophy squad, puts it.

A year after bowling to Delhi’s top players at nets, Saini made his first-class debut. With time, he became a regular on India A tours. Soon, a plum contract with Royal Challengers Bangalore followed. In the most recent IPL edition, he clocked 150kph with ridiculous ease, sending social media into meltdown. All this finally translated into selection in the Indian senior team, with a ticket for the upcoming series in Florida and the Caribbean. For someone without any formal coaching, and who till the age of 18 had only bowled with a tennis ball, Saini’s dreamy rise is a tale of grit and unflinching passion.

***

Despite Saini’s exploits on the cricket field, it’s his father Amarjeet, a retired Haryana Roadways driver, who is more popular in this neck of the woods. In Taraori, the Saini household is hard to miss. Just ask anyone for ‘Saini sahab ka ghar’, and they would promptly direct you to his two-storeyed house with a garage that boasts of a Hyundai Creta, a Harley Davidson and a Royal Enfield. Amarjeet is a 60-year-old man with a robust frame, thick black hair and infectious smile. He greets you with a firm handshake and is quick to show you around.

The Sainis hail from Punjab’s Ropar district. It was Amarjeet’s 95-year-old father Karam Singh, a former Indian National Army subedar, who purchased land here at dirt cheap rate and migrated with his family in the 1960s.

“It was a single-storey house back then and we have expanded it only recently. Yeh sab Guru ki kripa hain (It’s all Guru’s blessings),” Amarjeet says. The nonagenarian looks frail and doesn’t talk much. But he sports an innocent smile and readily poses for the camera.

“My father is still very fit, and till last year would go out for cycling in the morning,” Amarjeet gushes.

He admits that there has been an improvement in their lifestyle over the last decade. And it’s not entirely due to Navdeep making rapid strides on the cricket field. In fact, Amarjeet gives credit to his elder son Mandeep.

Also read: Navdeep Saini a raw talent with bright future, says Virat Kohli

“He is two years elder to Navi and works in a departmental store in Glasgow. He has married a local and has settled there for some time now. He has a four-year-old son. Last year, he got our house painted. Every time he visits us, he makes it a point to gift me something or the other. This time around, he gifted me a pair of sunglasses… I now have four of them,” he offers.

Amarjeet ushers you to his drawing room, which has a gigantic glass cabinet with an assortment of medals and trophies that Navdeep has won over the years. “I was initially sceptical if his dreams would materialise… yahan facilities nahin hain cricketer banne ke liye (here you don’t have facilities to become a cricketer).”

He remembers a time when he had desperately sought out his friend’s help to know more about Yograj Singh’s coaching centre in Chandigarh.

“My friend had told me that it’s very expensive and difficult to get admission at. But even then, my son didn’t lose heart. He kept telling me, papa, aap meri fikr mat karo…mein to cricketer hi banoonga (Don’t worry about me… I will become a cricketer only),” Amarjeet quips.

His wife Gurmeet Kaur was closer to both sons than her husband. “Navi ke papa to subah nikal jaate they kaam ke liye aur raat ko waapas aate the. Pura din in ladkon ke saath mein hi rehti thi (Their father used to go out for work in the morning and return at night. I was the one who stayed with them the whole day),” she says.

At first, she found Navdeep’s overwhelming love for cricket a tad difficult to comprehend. “He used to keep watching cricket on the television the whole day and kept mimicking their actions in front of the mirror. Koi ek Brett Lee tha aur Dale Steyn tha (there was one Brett Lee and some Dale Steyn)…whole day he would keep talking about them,” she reminisces.

Those frequent games, however, left Gurmeet worried about her younger son’s health. “Bachpan se bahut hi dubla-patla sa tha (He was very skinny from childhood),” she recalled. The doting mother would pack an extra parantha with generous dollops of ghee in Navdeep’s tiffin box, but her efforts did little to help her son gain extra kilos.

***

When he made his first-class debut in 2013-14, Navdeep was not an overnight sensation. First-class cricket had exposed a few chinks in his armour. He had raw pace, but lacked control. He was still very much a work-in-progress. Fitness had become a major issue in his debut season as rarely could he last five matches at a stretch. Navdeep’s frail 62-kg body couldn’t bear the rigours of four-day cricket.

After a forgettable debut season, the rookie pacer needed help on two critical fronts — refining his bowling and a systematic overhaul of his fitness regimen. Help came from Narwal’s friend Waqar Ahmed, a former Himachal Pradesh player.

“Navdeep does not have a clean action, but his real strength is his quick, whippy arms that generate enormous speed. I guess this can be attributed to his tennis ball days. When I met him for the first time, I had told him not to alter his bowling action. I remember, he began on an erratic note in his debut season… would bowl one incredibly quick spell and then tire out. I realised that he needed a good trainer who could not only take care of his fitness, but also improve him holistically,” Ahmed explains.

He introduced Navdeep to Nasir Jamshed, a fitness expert, who operates out of a plush clinic in Delhi’s Shahpur Jat area, and boasts of a clientele that includes a bevy of first-class cricketers and tennis player Yuki Bhambri.

“When I first met him, he was like a 2,000cc engine fitted inside a Maruti Alto… really thin, weighed a little over 60kg and looked like being on the verge of a breakdown. In fact, I was surprised to know that he was infact a fast bowler,” Jamshed remembers.

For Jamshed, the biggest challenge was to instill muscle mass into Navdeep’s wiry frame. It needed a systematic overhaul. At the outset, a detailed diet plan was chalked out; gluten was junked and more carbohydrates and leafy veggies and fruits were incorporated. Even the water he drank was monitored.

“During his first year in Delhi, he was staying in a flat that did not even have a proper RO filter. We conducted blood tests and found that there was a small enlargement in his liver,” he explains.

Before coming to Jamshed, all Navdeep did was run 10km five times a week. He was asked to stop running and for the next six months, was put on weight training three times a day.

A separate diet chart was prepared for his off days as well. He was also given supplements that would prove to be crucial in gaining muscle. The diet and weight training was complemented by adequate rest — as much as 8-10 hours on a daily basis.

The results did not come overnight. But with time, it helped Navdeep gain muscle, essential for a fast bowler , and also made him less injury- prone. “I have worked with him for close to five years now, and the results are tangible. Look at him now. He can bowl long spells and does not get tired and weighs about 75kg, which is ideal for his 6-foot frame,” Jamshed adds.

***

Back at the Saini household, Navdeep’s parents greet their son’s maiden India call-up with a tinge of pride laced with despondence. “I am extremely happy at what he has achieved as a cricketer. But as a father, I rarely get to see him these days because of his commitments and training. But you can’t do anything about it, that’s how life is,” Amarjeet notes. It’s not as if Navdeep has stopped coming home but his visits have been few and far in between.

“He would randomly call and come one evening and then leave the next morning. He will also not eat much,” Gurmeet laments.

Amarjeet, though, delves on the positives. “I believe everything happens for the good. How many from Taraori have gone on to become international cricketers. He found the right people at the right time, who helped him in his quest. As I always say, ‘yeh sab Guru ki kripa hain’,” he adds, before breaking into an infectious smile.

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