That fast, booming inswinging yorker to Roston Chase in Cuttack which crashed into the base of middle-stump. That wicket maiden in the final over against the Windies on debut. Those two rapid, snorting timber-cleaners against the Sunrisers in Dubai.
Navdeep Saini is a viewer’s delight. He is one of those bowlers you would genuinely pay to watch. He is tall, he is quick, he is lean, his bouncers are mean and he has an action as aesthetic as Babar Azam’s cover drive. Good or bad, every ball of his is an event and he is one of those blokes who, when on song, spits fire. In short, he is a living highlight reel.
And in his thus-far-young international career, Saini hasn’t disappointed. He might have just played 15 matches, but the 28-year-old has already displayed in high definition all the minutest elements that comprise him. His self-belief, confidence, arrogance, street-smartness, aggression, courage, doughtiness and the fast-bowler-bastardness have all been exhibited at different points in his embryonic international career and they have, quite honestly, made for an intriguing and riveting watch.
But hype and highlight reels will only take a cricketer so far, particularly in international cricket. Ultimately, for success and sustainability, there needs to come a point where the line of ‘promise’ needs to converge with the line of ‘performance’. For Navdeep Saini, the time has arrived for the lines to intersect.
Saini has had a more-than-decent start to his international career. He’s picked a wicket a game in 5 ODI appearances - all against strong, high-quality batting lineups - and his T20 numbers - 13 wickets in 9 innings @ ER of 7.15 - are exquisite. He has troubled batsmen with his pace and hostile lengths and has shown that there is no shortage of courage, commitment and desire from his end. But 15 games into his international career, there exists a rightful doubt in the minds of those who’ve watched him bowl, of whether he belongs to white-ball cricket.
A hit-the-deck-hard bowler who relies on pace, good lengths and occasional late movement, Saini’s raw talent meant that his name did the rounds for national selection since after 2017, and his showing in IPL 2019 for Royal Challengers Bangalore pretty much sealed the deal. An alluring 11-wicket showing in a season where RCB finished bottom proved to be the dealbreaker, and he made his international debut just three months later, in the T20Is versus the Windies. His debut - a mind-boggling 3/17 in which he also bowled a final-over wicket maiden - justified his hype, and he followed it up with myriad thumping showings in the games that followed. Yet, slowly, flaws seeped out of his game. The blemishes were magnified and exposed in the recently-concluded edition of the IPL.
Saini, to put it lightly, had a stinker in IPL 2020. Across 13 appearances, 6 wickets was all he could manage and his average of 63.16 was the second worst amongst all bowlers to have taken at least 5 wickets in the competition. Bizarrely, he started the season off well - a match-winning 2/25 versus SRH in the first game, followed by a heroic Super Over showing versus MI in the third game - but as the tournament progressed, his form fell off a cliff. Three wickets was all Saini managed in his last 9 appearances in the season but more than his numbers, what proved to be scathing was the premises surrounding his mangling.
Throughout the season, Saini displayed a startling lack of intelligence and game awareness and that ultimately led to his demise. On wickets that demanded bowlers to sacrifice and shun their pride and revert to a more pragmatic approach, the right-armer, stubborn as ever, learning no lessons despite being blistered, kept doling out quick, length deliveries which batsmen accepted with exult. This one-dimensionality of his was on full display in RCB’s penultimate group game versus the Sunrisers where, on a sluggish Sharjah wicket which cried for the seamers to vary their pace and lengths, he got carted for 30 off his 2 overs. It was of little surprise that he ended up claiming just two wickets in the latter half of the season, where, owing to the wickets slowing down, the need of the hour was nous; Saini displayed none.
It is, of course, unfair to judge any bowler - let alone a bowler of Saini’s raw talent - based on a solitary IPL season and a few white-ball games which preceded it, but that he is better suited to the longer format is an observation made by many. How he will fare in the Tests, if and when he gets a shot, is to be seen, but from the miniscule sample size at our disposal, what’s evident is that until and unless he starts bowling more with his mind and less with heart, he will find himself playing catch-up with the white-ball and turn out to be an occasional x-factor bowler, rather than a reliable commodity.
On the backdrop of his disastrous IPL, and in the current circumstances surrounding the Indian pace bowling stocks in limited-overs, the Australia tour becomes pivotal for Saini. Bhuvneshwar Kumar’s injury-plagued recent past has meant that the third seamer’s slot is wide open, for the near future at least, and evidence from the recent past suggests that both skipper Kohli and the team management are high on the 28-year-old. However, with both Shardul Thakur and Deepak Chahar lurking, T Natarajan rising meteorically and Bhuvi, himself, bound to be an automatic pick once he becomes fit, Saini might just have less time at his hands than he thinks he has.
With a good showing, he could firmly assert his place in the starting XI and, who knows, perhaps even spearhead the side in future limited-over matches in which both Bumrah and Shami are invariably bound to be rested. But, equally, could also bowl himself behind his compatriots in the pecking order. The wickets Down Under, one presumes, would suit his raw and aggressive style more than the ones back in Asia, but if there’s one thing we’ve learned over the course of this century, it’s that Australian wickets, and grounds, can break bowlers as much as they can make them.
That Saini will have highlight reels at the end of the tour goes without saying, but whether he will have the numbers to match those moments remains the biggest question at the moment.