Exclusive: Navdeep Saini keen to prepare Team India for cricket's biggest showpiece
From earning a meagre Rs 250 per match to being named as a stand-by for the biggest showpiece in cricket, life has been a roller-coaster for the speedster, Navdeep Saini. Once termed as an outsider from Karnal in the Delhi cricketing circuit, the tall and lanky seamer is now considered as one of the brightest prospects among the crop of next-generation fast bowlers in India.
After an impressive outing for Delhi in domestic cricket, Saini grabbed the eyeballs with his pace and bounce in the recently concluded Indian Premier League (IPL). Donning the jersey for Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB), he scalped 11 wickets in 13 matches and bowled an impressive 141 dot balls which was among the top 10 in the league. The 26-year-old is now gearing up for the England stint with the World Cup-bound men in blue as one of its four net bowlers.
“I want to take ahead the confidence of doing well in IPL and I am also trying to correct the mistakes I committed there. Right now I have been given the responsibility of a net bowler in a big tournament like the World Cup. So, it's a huge thing for me. My aim will be to give my best at nets and prepare Team India for the tournament," Saini told Sportskeeda in an exclusive interview.
Although the paceman was roped in by RCB in 2018 at a heavy price tag of Rs 3 crore, it was only this season that he got an opportunity to ply his trade in the lucrative league. The Haryana lad believes that the opportunity to rub shoulders with the international stars in IPL has boosted his confidence and allowed him to explore his strengths in a better way.
"It was a great learning experience for me since this was the first season where I got an opportunity to be a part of the playing XI. When you play against the best cricketers in the world, you get a different kind of confidence, it allows you to know your strengths in a better way and gives you new ideas," the young paceman said.
Saini had the full backing of skipper Virat Kohli and he was the go-to-man for RCB when the senior counterpart Umesh Yadav and youngster Mohammed Siraj failed to deliver.
"Virat bhaiya treated me as a younger brother. I used to discuss my game plan with him and he always backed me. He told me never to take any pressure and always keep the intensity high," the pacer from Karnal added.
The RCB camp also possessed experienced campaigners like Ashish Nehra (bowling coach) and Dale Steyn, which was a double delight for Saini.
“Ashu (Ashish Nehra) bhaiyya’s presence helped me a lot. Since he is also from Delhi he knew me quite well. He told me how to bowl in different match situations. Both of us planned how to play against different batsmen.
“Also, Dale Steyn who is my idol advised me to back my strength and continue bowling the way I have been,” he added.
The youngster has also been a regular member with the India ‘A’ team over the last couple of seasons where he has evolved under the guidance of Rahul Dravid and bowling coach Paras Mhambrey.
“Rahul sir has a different way of explaining things which has helped me a lot. Paras (Mhambrey) sir has also worked a lot on me in India A. When you play a level above the Ranji Trophy, you need to learn new things. So, whenever we meet, we always discuss about how I can get better as a bowler,” said the youngster.
Saini showcases the desire to hone his skills by learning as much as he can from his seniors.
“I always try to learn different things from different individuals because that helps me to evolve as a cricketer,” he added.
One of Saini’s biggest strength's as a bowler is the raw pace that he generates. His ability to consistently hit the 150 kmph mark makes him extraordinary and lethal. In the latest season of the IPL, he was the fastest among the Indian lot and his delivery clocking 152.85 kmph was second best to Kagiso Rabada’s 154.23 kmph.
When asked about the secret behind generating such tremendous pace, he said, “One has to take care of his fitness by ensuring a proper combination of gym and diet to bowl at pace. And understanding your body is the most important aspect.
The speedster started his journey in cricket by playing tennis ball tournaments. In fact, until 2013, he had never bowled with the red leather. And he actually believes that it is something which works in his favour.
“When you bowl with the tennis ball you need to make sure you bowl full, just below the bat so that you don’t get hit. And you need to be fast to do that. So, the demands of tennis ball cricket has actually helped me to increase my arm strength,” Saini added.
Altogether, a tennis-ball player who was once short of money to even buy a pair of spikes has today found his way to be regarded as one of India’s finest pace bowling prospects. However, the story could have well been different had the former India cricketer Gautam Gambhir not taken note of this prodigy. And thus even today, Saini gets emotional when he talks about the role of Gambhir in his life.
“Whatever I am today, it is because of Gautam bhaiyya. There was a time when nobody wanted to play me, even in Haryana I wasn’t getting chances.
“He gave me a chance to play for Delhi. If there is someone after my family, it will always be Gautam bhaiyya,” he concluded.