Saini's rise from neighbourhood rice mill-cricket

RCB bowler Navdeep Saini celebrate after taking wicket of KXIP batsman David Miller during the Indian Premier League 2019 (IPL T20) cricket match between Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) and Kings XI Punjab (KXIP) at Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bengaluru. (PTI Photo)

Playing cricket at a rice mill in his village in Karnal, Haryana, Navdeep Saini never dreamt of an India cap. It appeared a far-fetched desire. Financial limitations had put a leash on his dreams. But fate, fortunately, was generous. His talent got noticed at the right time, and hard work saw him knocking the doors of the national team.

The 26-year-old was drafted into the Test squad last year against Afghanistan but not in the XI. He was later included in the one-day international and T20I squads touring the West Indies. He earned the national cap for the T20s, and won admirers and man of the match award with his stellar debut, when he picked two of this three wickets in successive balls.

The strapping pacer recalled how he felt excitement and nerves in equal measure. “When I got selected to the team, I got very excited. The thing I was working for so long was happening to me. When I got the cap, I was over the moon. I was also a bit nervous but the experience turned out to be excellent and will stay with me,” Saini told DH.

Saini, who plays for Delhi, has not forgotten his days of struggle. His father, Amarjeet Singh Saini, a bus driver with Haryana government, and mother, Gurmeet, a homemaker, could not afford to send him to a cricket academy. In fact, Saini never went to one.

“I used to play a lot of local cricket. There was a rice mill nearby. I used to play there with my elder brother Mandeep and best friend Karan Sidhu. I never felt I could make it to this level. My family didn't have money or resources at that time to support my ambition. So the possibility of it never crossed my mind. We couldn't even afford the kit. We played with the bat which Karan would bring,” he said.

Saini vividly remembered the day he went for the cricket trials organised in Karnal. The fee of Rs 450, was arranged with great difficulty by his parents. “When I reached the stadium, I was shellshocked to see the large crowd. I felt I wouldn't even get a chance and my money would go waste. I then promised myself to make one sincere effort. And I got selected in trials,” he said.

It provided him with the chance to play in the T20 league organised by former Delhi all-rounder Sumit Narwal in Karnal. It became the turning point for the then 19-year-old Saini. “In that tournament my performance was good. Sumitji told me I have the talent and I could do it. He got me to Delhi for 'net' practice and I bowled there. That is where Gautam (Gambhir) bhaiyya saw me for the first time.”

It took a lot of persuasion from Gambhir to get Saini in the Delhi team. The selectors were staunchly against the inclusion of an "outsider".

“He (Gambhir), however, didn't relent and spoke to the selectors to get me into the Delhi team. After that, I started playing regularly for Delhi in Ranji Trophy. Where I have reached today, I give credit to him.”

Saini justified the faith reposed in him by giving consistent performances. He was picked for Royal Challengers Bangalore in the Indian Premier League (IPL). There too Saini made an impact and credits former left-arm seamer Ashish Nehra, who was the bowling coach of the franchise.

“The credit of my performance with the white ball, especially in the IPL, I always give it to Ashish bhai. After a match, whether it was a good performance or bad, he would always talk nicely to you. After playing all the matches in IPL, I gained a lot of confidence. It benefited me a lot in my T20 debut. Also, I will never forget the encouraging words of AB de Villiers who told me that my strength was bowling hard lengths and I should back myself."

'Winds of change'

When he returned from the Carribean tour, Saini was in demand. At the recent press conference for the All India Public Sector T20 cricket tournament, by his employers ONGC, he grabbed the spotlight. Saini, though, wants his focus to be firmly on cricket.

“It was a great learning experience for me. I realised, at the highest level the margin of error slims down a lot. So when you keep that margin in mind, it gives you an idea about the kind of effort you need to put into your practice. The accuracy is paramount at the international level, and that for me is now the most important thing,” he said.

“Before I was drafted in the national squad, I was only playing domestic cricket. So it is a good thing that I got the opportunity to be in the national side and interact with then. I learned how to bowl at that level. As I am getting these chances, I am picking small things which are helping me in bowling.”

Playing for Delhi and IPL transformed his fortunes. In his village Taraori, Saini is a famous name. His two-storied house includes parking space for a Harley Davidson and a Royal Enfield, and Hyundai Creta. "Earlier the financial condition wasn't good. But today things have changed. My elder brother is now in England and settled there. At home also, all those things which were not available earlier, are there today. All the things we never thought we could have,” he said.

As a cub cricketer, Saini would follow the Australian speedsters -Brett Lee and Mitchell Johnson. Like them, he loved the sound of timber, the wickets somersaulting in the air. Today the Indian bowlers, too, have joined his list of favourites. As the series against South Africa beckons, Saini is brimming with a sense of purpose.

“I admired Brett Lee and Mitchell Johnson. I loved their aggression. Now, all Indian bowlers too have become my favourites. The Indian bowlers are giving a very high-level performance and they are best in their own way. Whatever hard work I have been doing, I want do a bit more and give better performances. I have to become like them,” he said.

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