CHENNAI: Navdeep Saini may be a bit of a milquetoast off the field, but he’s a different beast with a ball in his hand. Just ask the West Indies team for proof. Yes, they might not have had Andre Russell on Saturday, but Shimron Hetmyer, Nicholas Pooran and Kieron Pollard are equally capable of smashing a ball from Fort Lauderdale to the Caribbean. The right-arm pacer couldn’t have chosen three better wickets to announce his arrival.
There have been a bazillion pieces on how this 26-year-old from Karnal, the son of a Haryana Roadways driver, has become another addition to India’s 140-clicks club. They’ve touched upon how he was a silver lining for Royal Challengers Bangalore in this year’s IPL. They’ve also skimmed through his rise from the local leagues of Karnal to the red-ball echelons of Delhi, one that involved Gautam Gambhir’s backing for a prodigy.
But KP Bhaskar, who was Delhi’s coach in 2017-18 — also Saini’s breakthrough season that saw him get a `3 crore cheque from Bangalore a few months later — has a nice anecdote that describes the pacer in a more wholesome manner.
“In our dressing room, he’s always been this sweet chap who kept mostly to himself; minimal words,” recollects the former Delhi player.
“During our semifinal against Bengal, we’d taken a 112-run lead. And our bowling hadn’t been intimidating. I was starting to worry that Bengal, who had quality batsmen, would set up a chase of beyond 250. During our brief, I told this to Navdeep and Kulwant (Khejroliya), and Navdeep’s reply was, ‘Koi nahi, sir. 112 run bahut hain. Hum dekh lenge (It’s okay, sir. 112 runs are more than enough. We’ll take care of it.).’”
Both did. Two four-fors. All of Saini’s dismissals were bowled; one cartwheeling off-stump included, and three wickets in just two overs. Bengal were blown away for 86; an innings victory clinched. A spell of fiery pace — one that would kickstart Saini’s origin story — was promised with minimal words and delivered with minimal fuss.
It isn’t as if Saini’s story didn’t have low points.
“He debuted in 2013, but he’d always play a few matches before picking up an injury. I remember him sending down three-odd overs and then walking off due to an abdominal strain. He had the pace, but he has realised that he can only keep bowling quick if his fitness is up to the mark.”
Through his professional-friends’ circle, Saini came in touch with Nasir Jamshed, a fitness expert based in Delhi who helped the lanky pacer go from a scrawny 62kg to a respectable 75kg. Finally, the Lamborghini had a chassis that matched its engine.
“Pace bowling is not all about a bowler’s frame, but fitness is one key factor to keep the engine running. His arm speed is his USP, and a better frame obviously helps with rotation. That said, Navdeep is a rhythm bowler, and nowadays he seems to be finding that groove quickly. We already have the best pace battery, even in terms of sheer speed, and his rise just adds to the healthy competition that exists in it.”
Seven — with Navdeep’s inclusion, that’s how many 140-plus speedsters India have — is a lucky number, indeed.