2010, 2011, 2012 and 2014 - four years where Indian cricket was all over the place when it came to giving debuts to pace bowlers from the domestic circuit. Varun Aaron, Jaydev Unadkat, Abhimanyu Mithun, Pankaj Singh, and Vinay Kumar - five bowlers who were discarded before reconsidered.
Highly rated on the domestic circuit, these pacers made their breakthrough into the Indian team, achieving their dream of donning the Indian jersey in the longest format. And then their dreams were crushed before they could even rub their eyes, only to be never seen back again on the cricket pitch ever after in the Indian colours. In Australia, it was Vinay Kumar; in South Africa, it was Jaydev Unadkat; in England, it was Pankaj Singh but you get the narrative right?
So when Navdeep Saini and Mohammed Siraj made their debuts in Australia, the scary sight returned - would the Indian management continue an age-old tradition and spoil several careers because of their inefficient workload management? They shouldn’t! Saini is effectively one of the best raw pacers to have emerged out of the country. Cap.
He isn’t as vulnerable as Varun Aaron in terms of injuries but in terms of effectiveness, he hadn’t given the best impression on Day 1. Now as universally acceptable as that could be, the Indian fans and the management need to trust Navdeep Saini now more than ever. Unlike the others, Saini came into the fore after a disastrous IPL season and his dreaded luck continued onto the limited-overs series. He wasn’t threatening but he was fast and furious with the white-ball.
But the narrative continued, as Siraj was overlooked for Umesh Yadav, who was considered the better experienced of the lot. When Shami was injured, Siraj was considered and when Umesh was injured, Saini was. Now that erupted the entire country, united them for this one cause - Saini doesn’t deserve the Test cap. Their solidifying answer, at least what they felt was that either Shardul Thakur or Thangarasu Natarajan was better.
Now that’s where the common perception of these set of fans have emerged out of the woods. They have watched enough IPL this season and limited-overs cricket to judge the player and his calibre. While Thakur and Natarajan bring in something to the table, they don’t bring something enough to push a case for themselves, which is why Saini is a gem for the Indian team. He isn’t your go-to seam bowler, he isn’t your banana-swing bowler but he will ensure that express-pace doesn’t come at a cost.
When the management were hell-bent on trusting Umesh for his pace, they ought to do the same with Saini, who if anything is staggeringly more consistent than the Vidarbha pacer. Coming into the Indian squad, Saini who represents Delhi in the Ranji Trophy on one of the lesser-friendly pitches for pacers has a phenomenal record; 132 wickets in 81 innings, at an average of 28.50. While leaving records aside for a second, the impression that the pacer leaves on the batsmen is humungous, the same that gave Jasprit Bumrah his place in the Indian team.
Despite catches tumbling in and out, Saini’s work-rate on the first two days of the flattest Sydney wicket since 2013, he was effervescent and was constantly threatening the batsmen albeit still bowling the half-trackers. But for a second, just for a second, take the half-trackers out of the equation and consider this - he’s making his debut on the flattest track that is, considered also as a road with the youngest ever Indian bowling attack (in terms of caps). In no way, would you expect him to rampage the Australians and pick up five wickets.
If anything, he did that, showcasing his abilities in the day-night encounter in Sydney, the same venue. After India were wrapped up for 194 in the first innings. But as threatening as he looked, Saini came on in a late burst to account for the dangerous looking Alex Carey and swept the tail away, an issue persistent in Indian cricket. While most of the teams on the international circuit have one or the other bowler who does this job, read Mitchell Starc, Saini fits in the bill perfectly. He bowls with the new ball, he can swing the old ball, and most definitely can sweep the tail.
On Day 3, his performance came true to his potential when he was at his hostile best in one of the best spells of the Test match for the Indians. He came in with the steam, accounting for not just Marnus Labuschagne but Matthew Wade also. Not just that, when Rahane handed him the ball in the second spell when things seemingly looked dry for India, as Will Pucovski and Labuschagne were treating bowlers like dandruff, he came on and really threatened. Not just threatened, he accounted for the well-set Pucovski with one of the best deliveries of the first innings.
After consecutively beating his outside edge, the lanky pacer bowled a curveball that swung enough to not create doubt in Pucovski’s mind but subsequently went on to expose his technique to the rest of the world. While Pucovski had announced his arrival with a half-century, Saini did his in a unique fashion - with a ripper. That showed why he was here, why the team trusted him the most. If you think of it practically, not as another defensive Indian fan, the next Test is at Gabba, one of the paciest wickets in Australia. That’s where Saini’s good would turn the blind eye.
Just in a manner where the Australian team trusts Mitchell Starc, who is equally wayward and certainly talented, like how the Indian team gave a long rope to Ishant Sharma before he turned into this leader; the management need to turn back the pages and carbon copy the same formula. They need to trust Navdeep Saini more than ever, right now, when the series is on the line at the Gabba and his pace, something that made him warrant a place in the squad.
At the venue where the pace, the bounce is aplenty, Saini would be detrimental to the Australian hopes of having a faithful five days in Queensland, one of their dearest home venues. Saini has arrived, at least he has shown more than glimpses of what he is capable of, now it is up to the trust that could embark the Indian team on another journey. With Umesh Yadav struggling for fitness, India needs to trust Saini and get on board with the pacer’s abilities while still understanding the frustration that accompanies. He can’t become an overnight sensation but surely has all the signs to overturn his bad form into a faithful one for the foreseeable future.
Update: Jasprit Bumrah has been ruled out of the Gabba Test, which only makes the management’s trust on Saini more important, with the Delhi pacer the closest to Bumrah in the current setup.