BY THE time Navdeep Saini delivered those two searing, wicket-taking yorkers in the 61st over, Maharashtra’s vigil was well and truly broken and Delhi was all but home. Exactly 15 deliveries later, when young left-arm spinner Vikas Mishra trapped the seasoned Chirag Khurana for 33, the hosts completed a comprehensive innings victory to reach the top of the group table with 24 points from five games.
Delhi’s clinical performance at the Airforce Sports Complex in Palam ensured that they qualify for the Ranji Trophy knockouts. In each of the three days’ play, there was at least one standout player who came up with a defining performance. On Day 1, it was the heroic rescue act by Nitish Rana and Rishabh Pant, that bailed Delhi out of trouble after the top-order wobble. On the truncated second day’s play, captain Ishant Sharma came to the party with a splendid 3-wicket burst.
On Sunday, it was young Saini who delivered the goods with telling blows at crucial junctures. Saini, who had gone wicketless in the morning session, struck immediately after lunch, accounting for stubborn Maharashtra opener Rituraj Gaikwad. He would return towards the fag end of the day’s play to mop up Maharashtra’s tail.
The 23-year-old finished with six wickets for the match, taking his season’s tally to 19 scalps from five matches. What was heartening to see was the manner in which he ran in to deliver his 18 overs on Sunday, displaying an indefatigable spirit.
Fresher and sharper, Saini has been a revelation for Delhi this season. While he displayed the same eagerness and spirit in his four previous seasons, he did not have the desired results to back his efforts. A cursory glance at his career does indicate that his performances had largely been underwhelming. He has 87 wickets from 28 first-class games, with just a solitary five-wicket haul to his name.
Things have finally turned around for him this season, and Saini attributes his success to the two India A stints (New Zealand and South Africa) he had under coach Rahul Dravid. “I have trained really hard on my fitness during the off-season. Also, my stints under Rahul sir and Paras Mahambrey have helped me as a bowler. It’s the technical inputs that have helped me,” he said.
All that experience gained under Dravid and Mahambrey was put to good use on Sunday when Rahul Tripathi launched a counter-attacking blitz in the afternoon session. It was an interesting passage of play when Maharashtra, who were asked to follow-on, had no choice but to adopt an aggressive approach.
Not surprisingly, Tripathi, fresh from his exploits in the Indian Premier League, slammed a 78-ball 106. His 92-run stand with wicketkeeper Rohit Motwani, which came in a shade under 17 overs, gave Maharashtra the hope of overhauling the deficit. “I had to attack the bowlers. We lost the plot in the first innings where we lost three wickets in the first three overs. So, in essence, we were playing the catch-up game. I thought that by playing aggressively, we would put pressure on the opposition bowlers,” Tripathi summed up his efforts after the game.
He was not off the mark. Tripathi’s onslaught did put the Delhi bowlers on the backfoot. But in the midst of Tripathi’s blitzkrieg, Saini kept bowling simple lines in and around the off-stump. He did not change his approach even after Tripathi slammed him for a six. “They got out in a heap yesterday. But we were sure they would come good with one or two partnerships today after following on. Since we had ample runs to play with, I remained patient and did not bother to alter my line or length,” Saini said when asked about Tripathi’s knock.
Perhaps, the real reason for Saini’s turnaround this season has been the presence of Ishant Sharma, his captain and senior fast bowling ally. His experience and acumen was something Saini had missed in his previous seasons.
Saini puts things in perspective when he said: “Having a senior like Ishant bowling from the other end has helped me. I have learnt a lot from him.” Ishant and Saini have together accounted for 39 scalps this season, indicating how well the two have bowled in tandem.
Delhi’s bowling attack will once again rest on the broad shoulders of Saini when the team travels to Hyderabad next week for their final league game. His exploits at Palam would keep him in good stead for that duel as well.
Brief Scores: Delhi 419 beat Maharashtra 99 and (f/o) 259 (Rahul Tripathi 106, Navdeep Saini 4/57, Vikas Mishra 4/90) by an innings and 61 runs. Points: Delhi 7. Maharashtra 0.