India vs Australia: The rise of Saini – From Delhi ‘outsider’ to India Test debut

The winter chill outside before dawn on Thursday was in contrast to the warmth inside the house in Karnal. The Sainis living in the Taraori locality of Haryana’s refinery town were brimming with anticipation as their boy Navdeep Saini got ready in faraway Sydney to make his Test debut.

His father Amarjeet Saini, mother Gurmeet Saini and 97-year-old grandfather Karam Singh Saini, a veteran of the Azad Hind Fauj, were glued to their television as Saini came out on to the Sydney Cricket Ground in his whites, and No. 96 printed on the back of the shirt.

It had been some journey, from playing tennis-ball cricket in the backyard to representing the country in the most prestigious format, and Saini’s father was filled with pride as India’s latest Test debutant—the 299th— received his cap from Jasprit Bumrah and lined up with other teammates for the national anthem.

“Seeing your son realising his dream, that too away from India—it made me a bit emotional,” Amarjeet Saini said. “It was a proud moment to see him make his Test debut at the SCG and stand with others as jana gana mana played in the background.”

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He jumped for joy when Saini took his first wicket, trapping Australian opener Will Pucovski, 22, a fellow debutant. He had twice been reprieved but Saini beat Pucovski’s elaborate shuffle with a pitched-up delivery.

“When he got that wicket, my wife had just gone to the kitchen. I shouted out for her in excitement. It was special. He seemed a bit nervous before that. The wicket eased things,” he said.

“We received umpteen calls from friends and relatives today. Rain stopped play for some time and overs were lost. Hopefully, Navi gets to bowl a lot of overs tomorrow and strike,” said the 60-year-old, who was a driver with the Haryana government before taking voluntary retirement in 2016.

Saini’s journey into the ever-expanding India pace department is as engrossing as the other two newcomers—Mohammed Siraj and T Nataraj. Tennis-ball cricket on an uneven local green to the well-ordered world of the national team is common to all three. Mohammed Shami, whose injury saw Siraj make his debut in the second Test at the MCG, too had travelled from Uttar Pradesh to Kolkata to realise his dreams.

Natarajan rose from Tamil Nadu’s Chinnappampatti village to IPL death-overs specialist and then India net bowler and limited-overs debutant on this tour. Hyderabad-based Siraj made an emotional debut at the MCG as his autorickshaw-driver father who helped him realise his dream, didn’t live to see his son’s biggest cricketing moment yet.

Saini’s first break was an accident. Delhi pacer Sumit Narwal happened to see him at a tennis-ball game and asked him to come to Delhi in 2013. Skipper Gautam Gambhir was impressed with the zip in Saini’s bowling and fought with the selectors for including him for the Ranji game against Vidarbha.

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Former India opener, the late Chetan Chauhan, who was selector, accepted Gambhir’s demand but the next day a campaign was started in DDCA against including “outsider” Saini who had not risen through the ranks in local cricket.

Saini then struggled with injuries till 2014-15, especially a stress fracture of the back, but focus on fitness helped make a strong comeback. His ability to bowl at around 145 kph and control made him a Delhi spearhead.

Saini, who has expressed his gratitude for Gambhir, vindicated the faith in 2017-18, his 34 wickets helping Delhi reach the Ranji final, which they lost to Vidarbha.

Next was IPL and his first team was the then Delhi Daredevils in 2017, before the big switch to Virat Kohli’s Royal Bangalore Challengers, bought for R3 crore in 2018.

Saini had an impressive start to his limited-overs career in late 2019. He took 3/17 on T20 debut at Lauderhill, US, against the West Indies in August. And in his first ODI at Cuttack later that year, the bouncer got Shimron Hetmyer and the yorker disturbed Roston Chase’s stumps.

In an interview to HT in December, 2019, Saini spoke of Kohli’s early message. “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, do it whole-heartedly, without fear or worry).

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His grandfather Karam Singh Saini had served under Subhash Chandra Bose in Japan. “He takes huge pride in Navdeep’s achievements. He still keeps tab on his cricket,” said Amarjeet Saini.

As his career took off, Saini asked his father to take it easy. “He told me to quit the job and enjoy life. He started doing well in 2016… since then there has been no looking back.

“God has blessed us with so much… I now drive my car. Navdeep has also got me my favourite Harley Davidson bike.”

Amarjeet though will hope his son and the India team have a smooth ride at the SCG.

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