Navdeep Saini was an uncut diamond when the Karnal-born pacer was plucked out of anonymity and thrust into the Delhi Ranji Trophy team by Gautam Gambhir, amid opposition, six years ago. Now 27, Saini showed he is close to the polished article for India on Sunday on ODI debut in Cuttack on Sunday—the bouncer did Shimron Hetmyer and the yorker arrowed into Roston Chase’s stumps soon after. On his India audition in August, he took 3/17 on T20 debut at Lauderhill, US, against the Windies. Selected for the January home series against Sri Lanka and Australia, the rising pacer talks about how he plotted his dismissals in Cuttack, and about learning the finer points of his trade from India’s best pacers.
After a good start in T20Is, how tough was it to cope with a groin injury?
Injuries can happen to anyone. The important thing is how you comeback and match the standards or take it a level higher. If you’re mentally and physically strong, 100% you can earn your place back.
How do you look back on your ODI debut?
I was mentally prepared. I knew it was another golden opportunity to prove myself, so just went out and gave my everything.
Talk about your first ODI wicket—Shimron Hetmyer.
When I was playing Ranji Trophy, I wasn’t thinking much about white-ball cricket. My childhood friend Mohit Kalyan (Haryana batsman) follows a lot of cricket on TV. So I called him up to know who was batting well when I received the ODI call-up. He told me about Hetmyer and (Kieron) Pollard and came up with the plan of bowling certain lengths to the West Indies batsmen.
Was bowling at Hetmyer’s body part of that plan?
Absolutely. I was aware West Indies big-hitters love room outside off-stump. Mohit and I had discussed this. I decided to bowl short and close to Hetmyer’s body, and with my pace I knew it won’t be easy to pull me from that length. (He was caught at fine-leg trying to pull).
What about the yorker to bowl Roston Chase?
I was practising the yorker while playing Vijay Hazare Trophy. In limited-overs cricket, it is very important to bowl at the death. Also, I was playing Ranji Trophy, where you have to consistently hit one area, which helped a lot. You have to be mentally strong to execute anything. You may have practised less but if you have mental strength to bowl a particular ball to a batsman in an international match, that is the biggest plus point.
How is the Indian team atmosphere?
The atmosphere in the Indian dressing room is one of the main reasons behind our success. Even when I returned for the final ODI, every member, including the support staff, came up to me and said it’s a big opportunity, and I should remain calm. That helped a lot.
What about Kohli?
Virat bhai only has one advise, ‘jo cheez tu abhi tak karta aa raha usi cheez ko khulke karna hai, bina dare, bina kuch soche.’(what you’ve been bowling till now, you must do it whole-heartedly, without fear or worrying too much). I was a bit nervous at the start of my first spell. He told me to just focus on the job. The big crowd in Cuttack is no different from IPL and I should just express myself with ball in hand.
How is your relationship with other India pacers?
We keep talking to each other. When I started my second spell, Mohammad Shami was at mid-off. He guided me on how to handle the pressure because at that time the batsmen were looking for quick runs. He told me not to get defensive but look for wickets.
How do you deal with competition with so many quality fast bowlers there?
There is a lot of competition, but I see that as an opportunity. The bowling line-up we have is the best in the world right now. So, we don’t have to look elsewhere for competition. I always think about what I can do more to rise to the level of Bumrah, Shami or Ishant. The team management also comes into play. There is a process in place. We have been given clear roles and even if I don’t play a few games, that doesn’t mean I’m out of the scheme of things. The communication is really good.
India need a pacer who can bowl with the new ball and at the death for the T20 World Cup.
I try to be ready for every situation, whether bowling with the new ball or at the death. The goal will be to be a part of India’s T20 World Cup squad. But there is still some time to go. If I start thinking too much about the future, it will only put unnecessary pressure. It’ll be better if I prepare for one series at a time.
What is your plan for the Sri Lanka and Australia series?
I want to be consistent with the new and old ball. If I can execute my plans of hitting the lengths at the start and getting the yorkers right in the end, it really won’t matter who my opponents are. If I’m mentally strong enough, then the match situation or opposition won’t be much of a problem.
What is the one thing you would like to add to your bowling?
Yorker, I need to perfect that art. Every time I see Bumrah, I get a feeling he is at a different level. I want to achieve a yorker like Bumrah has.