Sports analytics is a branch unto its own these days and it won’t be long before Virat Kohli’s team selections warrant a group of people all by themselves, working to figure out what goes on behind the scenes. As the Indian team returned to action after their heartbreaking World Cup exit, all eyes were once again on Kohli at the toss, to find out what is the playing XI going to be for the first T20I against West Indies on Saturday.
“Rahul and Deepak Chahar, KL Rahul and Shreyas Iyer miss out,” he told Ian Bishop.
Of the two Rahuls named on the bench, one of them was more of a surprise than the other. Granted, KL Rahul has not set the world on fire when turning out in India’s blues, but here was a guy who has been arguably the best Indian opener in the IPL for two seasons on the trot, a guy who thrives on confidence, a guy who has scored a century at this very venue a couple of years back. And, right when you thought a consistent run in the side would do him a world of good, he found himself warming the dugout once again.
But, on the other hand, finding himself making an international debut was a pacer from Delhi: young Navdeep Saini.
At the end of a rather frustrating T20I for everyone concerned (from the broadcasters, to the players and the fans watching it), Saini would have been on cloud nine: who wouldn’t be, after picking up the player of the match award in their very first senior international appearance.
A memorable spell
Bhuvneshwar Kumar, one of the most studious bowlers in world cricket, had figured out in his first over that the pitch (under-prepared because of the Florida weather) called for cutters and knuckle-balls. Bowling the second over after Washington Sundar, Kumar picked up his first wicket with a knuckle ball that stopped on the pitch.
But when Saini came on to bowl his first over for India, he was not going to try something that’s against his nature. He got here because of his pace and he was not going to abandon his strength at the first time of asking. He ran in hard, with that easy action of his and fired in the first couple of deliveries at Nicholas Pooran. He was not going for pace variation, but rather tried to surprise the batsman by changing up his lengths. But Pooran is considered one of the best young talents in the game for a reason: he latched on to a short of length delivery and slammed a straight six off Saini’s second ball.
But Saini did not let that affect him. He continued to run in hard and bang the ball hard. And did not have to wait long for his reward. Rewards, actually.
First, Pooran was hurried by a short ball on a slow pitch (that gives you an idea about Saini’s pace) and Rishabh Pant took the catch. Then, off the next ball, it was IPL teammate Shimron Hetmyer’s turn to be cramped for room and rushed by the pace. The stumps rattled. As far as comebacks in the first over of international cricket go, this was right up there.
And as well as Saini started off his debut, he finished it off even better. After being hit for a six by Kieron Pollard in his third over (18th of the match), Saini returned to bowl the 20th and started off with two wide yorkers that left Pollard with a wry smile on his place. Pollard then completely missed a full toss and, thanks to Pant’s insistence to review, Saini had this third wicket before going on to complete a maiden-wicket over.
Wicket in his first over: check. Two big talents dismissed: check. Opponent’s biggest threat dismissed: check.
On a pitch that otherwise provided tennis-ball bounce, Saini impressed with his speed through the air.
“All the help I’ve got in my bowling is all because of tennis ball cricket,” Saini had told ESPNCricinfo during the IPL season. “If you want to bowl full with tennis ball, it’s crucial you are fast. Since I bowled a lot with the tennis ball, it helped me build strength. Because of that, my arm speed increased as well. To bowl fast, I believe my fitness has to be at 110%, only then I can showcase my skills. If I bulk up too much, I feel my arm speed, which is my plus point, will slow down.”
“He’s come a long way,” said Kohli after the match, having been a part of the journey in more ways than one.
“[He] Plays the IPL as well, had a great season. He is a raw talent, has raw pace. He is one of them who can bowl 150 clicks and there are hardly any who bowl at that pace and he is fit. He is someone who can build a name for himself and he is hungry as well. Hopefully, he builds on from here .”
Given that he has steadily risen through the ranks, Saini has to just focus on going from strength to strength. If he keep grabbing his chances as he did in Florida on Saturday, the future is indeed bright for the pacer.