Saurabh Kumar: The emerging all-rounder taking the Ranji Trophy by storm
Maharashtra were looking strong at 274/4, with their skipper Ankit Bawane unbeaten on 107, by the end of the first day of their Ranji Trophy clash against Uttar Pradesh. Wicket-keeper batsman Rohit Motwani had added 62 runs himself, and along with his skipper was set to take his team to a healthy first innings total.
However, a diminutive left-arm orthodox spinner from Baghpat had other ideas. Within 16 overs of the second day's play, with Maharashtra managing to add only 48 more runs to their overnight total, all of their remaining batsmen, including Bawane and Motwani, were back in the hut. The 24-year-old Saurabh Kumar had added four more wickets to his three-wicket tally from the previous day and given UP a chance to crawl back in the game.
Playing just his 18th first-class match, this was Saurabh's third fifer in a career where he has bagged 65 wickets at an average of 25.53.
Initial years in the domestic circuit
Previously of the Indian Air Force, Saurabh, featuring for Services a season before his debut for UP, had amassed 304 runs along with bagging 17 wickets in his maiden Ranji Trophy season. He had then impressed everyone with a 10-wicket haul on his debut for Uttar Pradesh in 2015.
The most talked-about performance from him came around a year ago. UP were tottering at 207/7 against Baroda in Nasik when Saurabh walked in at number nine to join Kuldeep Yadav on the crease. The duo not only salvaged the match for their team but went on to build a record-breaking 192 runs partnership, recording a century each in the process.
However, when Sportskeeda managed to discuss Saurabh's career at length with him on the sidelines of the Ranji Trophy match between UP and Maharashtra in Lucknow, the soft-spoken left-arm bowler had this to say about his batting, "I spend most of the time bowling in the nets, I don't devote much time to my batting, my focus is mainly on honing my bowling skills."
A rather startling revelation coming from a player who has five half-centuries, in addition to the aforementioned hundred, in the FC circuit as well. More so for me, as I saw him play two handy knocks of 52-ball-27 and 24-ball-23 when his team were in dire straits and in desperate need of a partnership.
Overall, he has 842 runs in 18 FC matches at 35.08.
As far as his camaraderie with now India international Kuldeep is concerned, Saurabh revealed that the duo are constantly in touch and share tips on how they can better their performances.
"I keep talking to Kuldeep, we have spent a lot of time together. Even when he was playing in the domestic circuit with me, we kept discussing what we can do at what juncture of the match."
Saurabh was also picked up by the Rising Pune Supergiant for the 2017 Indian Premier League and though he didn't get an outing, sharing a dressing room with MS Dhoni, Steve Smith and the likes has rubbed off on the 24-year-old, and it shows in his performance.
"All of the players were positive, they pushed me to do well, so it was nice sharing the same dressing room with them."
Not only that, Saurabh is also lucky enough to play under the leadership of Suresh Raina at the domestic level, who, he revealed is not the strictest of captains and prefers keeping the atmosphere, on and off the field, light.
"Ghul-mil ke rehte hain sabse. He is a positive captain, who helps us do well."
Raina was also captaining Saurabh in the match against Maharashtra and trusted him to bowl from end throughout the third day, while the visitors were adding on to the 51-run first innings lead. The left-arm spinner was, yet again, the highest wicket-taker for his team with four dismissals and in the process completed his second FC match with 10 or more wickets to his name.
"The ball was turning from the other end, so captain asked me to continue bowling from there and the results are there for everyone to see."
Though UP went on to lose the match after coming agonisingly close to the 324-run target, Saurabh was one of the few better performers from his team. The 24-year-old, to conclude, added that he wishes to put up even better performers in the domestic season in the hope that he gets an India call-up.
"My short-term goal is to do good in the on-going season and pick as many wickets as possible for my team and like the rest of the players, my ultimate aim is obviously to play for the country."
With Saurabh's FC numbers being slightly better than that of Kuldeep, it might just be fair to say that Uttar Pradesh have found a worthy replacement of the chinaman. Moreover, with the latter now an integral part of the Indian national team, Saurabh has a golden chance to cement his place in the UP side and impress the selectors with consistent performances.