Navdeep Saini is back at Ferozshah Kotla after touring New Zealand with the India A team. He didn’t quite blow the opposition away but he did have the Kiwis of a hop with his nip and pace. At 26, Saini insists he is at the “peak of his career, both in terms of form and physical fitness”. On the eve of the Ranji Trophy game against Madhya Pradesh, Delhi will be hoping that Saini’s optimism proves infectious. The Nitish Rana-led side has lost two of their five games this season and their path to the qualifiers looks increasingly treacherous.
On a bright note, Delhi finally have a full-strength squad. Captain Rana and Himmat Singh are back from the recently concluded Emerging Cup in Sri Lanka, left-arm pacer Kulwant Khejroliya is fit after recuperating from chicken-pox, while opener Kunal Chandela, too, returns to the mix after an injury. To inject a bit of experience in their batting, they have also recalled opener Unmukt Chand. But the biggest boost to the home team is undoubtedly Saini’s return.
Rana spells out Delhi’s travails. “It’s not been easy for us. With the absence of our bowlers, we have been struggling with our combinations,” he quips. Saini’s absence means Delhi lacked the pace and X-factor in their bowling.
Gautam Gambhir, former Delhi captain, and someone who has seen Saini’s metamorphosis from close quarters, ever since he faced him at the nets for the first time six seasons ago, puts it down to Saini’s humble background, which has pushed him to work hard and improve in all facets of his game. He compares Saini to a boxer, who wants to keep punching above his weight. “The best thing about Navdeep is that he is always hungry for success, and I think it has got to do with his background, which encourages him to push for more,” Gambhir says.
Rhythm the key
All these attributes were on display during the last season, when he finished with 34 wickets from 9 games, which proved to be instrumental in Delhi’s march to the Ranji final. One of the most telling attributes about his bowling has been his the rhythm with which he notched up speeds in excess of 140kmph mark. Saini put it down to playing first-class cricket for the last five years, apart from improving his fitness. “I don’t think I did anything different last year. I was bowling with rhythm, and the experience that I had gained over the last five years of first-class cricket. That apart, I spent more hours on building my fitness levels and improving my stamina,” he explains. He got in touch with Ahmed Nisar, a fitness expert, who chalked out an exhaustive training module even during the off-season.
The slew of impressive performances got him selected as a nets bowler ahead of India’s third and final Test match against South Africa at the Centurion. Under the watchful gaze of chief of selector MSK Prasad, Saini whipped up decent pace and got the batsmen to hop around at the nets. That was enough to find a place in the Indian team for the one-off Test match against Afghanistan earlier this year after Mohammad Shami got injured.
Since then, Saini has not done anything substantial. His performances against New Zealand A was modest. “I am not too worked up by the lack of wickets in New Zealand. If you see, both those matches were drawn and teams batted only once,” he chips in.
An injury or a loss of form to one of the bowlers in India’s pace department could just open the doors for Saini. Another thing that could just work in his favour is the team management’s recent plan to rotate the fast bowlers, in a bid to keep them fresh for the more demanding tours. Saini, though, has always shown his propensity for the red ball, and has got most of his successes with it. “Bowling in the longer format is something that I enjoy. You have to be patient, and keep bowling on a certain channel. I feel that’s the biggest test for any fast bowler,” he notes.
Going forward, Saini has his task cut out. Delhi are on the cusp of elimination, and need to register outright wins in their subsequent three league games to keep them in the hunt. If they harbour hopes of a turnaround, their bowling lynchpin must need to hit his straps and notch up searing pace that had made him such a revelation last season.