Looking back at 2019 at the end of the series against West Indies, Virat Kohli was rightly pleased about the overall progress Indian cricket had made during the year, with special mention for one aspect: how the fast bowlers had started grabbing the headlines more often than spinners, even at home games.

Indeed, 2019 was the year that Indian pacers came to the fore, especially in red-ball cricket. Shami and Co finished 2019 with 95 wickets in Test matches at an average of 15.16 and a strike rate of 31.06, according to ESPNCricinfo. Even in white-ball cricket, Jasprit Bumrah and Mohmmad Shami were fantastic at the World Cup, while Deepak Chahar made his name towards the back-end of the year.

And now, (not) slowly and steadily, it is Navdeep Saini’s turn to make his mark in India’s blue.

The Delhi pacer had been knocking on the doors of the national team after impressing during Delhi’s run to Ranji Trophy final in 2017-’18 but was largely seen as a red-ball specialist. But, shortly after his five-wicket haul in the final at the Holkar Stadium, he popped up on the IPL radar and was picked up by Royal Challengers Bangalore. For someone who has been around the domestic circuit for a while, those few weeks at the end of 2017 and start of 2018 have, quite literally, fast-tracked him into the national side.

Two years later, in India’s first match of 2020, at the very venue where he played against Vidarbha in the Ranji Trophy final, Saini was the player of the match for sensational figures of 4-0-18-2 on a flat Indore pitch as India comfortably beat Sri Lanka by seven wickets.

Pace is pace

The most obvious strength Saini possesses is pace. It’s unmistakable. A long run-up, a smooth action, wonderful arm-speed at the time of release: all contribute in equal measure to the fact that he is one of the quickest bowlers around. There is no mystery to how quick he is, unlike Bumrah, for instance. And this was on full view in Indore, where he bowled the quickest delivery of the night at 151.6 kph, as per Star Sports’ statistics. His average speed? A tad more than 141 kph. The delivery to dismiss (a searing yorker) Danushka Gunathilaka was registered at 147.5 kph while the near-unplayable bouncer that got rid of Oshada Fernando was a 144 kph effort ball, according to ESPNCricinfo.

For fans who grew up in the 1990s, these are goosebump-inducing numbers.

While the pace has always been there (like he showed with another superb yorker against West Indies on his One-Day International debut), there were times during the last IPL season one felt that his pace was getting predictable and even counter-productive. Batsmen had the freedom to swing through the line on true surfaces and the pace, if anything, helped in carrying the ball a long way.

But as was seen in the T20I against Sri Lanka in Indore, Saini has realised that his pace is a serious weapon when he can add an element of surprise to it. There were quite a few cutters on display from the 27-year-old (one less than 110 kph according to the broadcasters) that made the yorkers and bouncers even more lethal. Batsmen were kept guessing and when Saini wanted crank it up, he did so with deadly accuracy as well.

“I play both [red ball and white-ball cricket these days], and hence the more I play, the better I will get at them,” Saini said after the match, adding that the yorker to get Gunathilaka was special for him because he got it right beyond expectations. “When I made my T20 debut, all I thought of was pace. But as I have played more, I have realised that variations are important too.”

While all eyes were on Bumrah and his comeback during this T20I series against Sri Lanka, Saini is making the most of opportunities that have come his way due to Deepak Chahar and Bhuvneshwar Kumar’s injuries. There is a case to be made for the fact that no pacer apart from Bumrah is a guaranteed starter in this T20 XI for India and given the availability of slots, Saini’s improved bowling efforts will see him climb up the ladder even when all the pacers are fit and rested.