Shirtless, the photo of Navdeep Saini walking on a synthetic track stands out in his Instagram feed. Clicked at the Karan Stadium in Karnal in the first week of June, the fast bowler looks ripped and lean. “Since Unlock 1 (which the government announced on May 31 after a nationwide lockdown since late March), I have regularly visited the local stadium for my running drills. I am a pacer and running is important for my leg strength and rhythm,” Saini, who is one of the few India pacers to have managed to start bowling at the nets post lockdown, said over the phone.
“There was no cricket but my training did not stop. I am lucky that my father has a farm here which is big and I could get enough space for the exercises that I usually do.”
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By usual exercise, he meant yoga, balancing drills and weight training. He has also started bowling at the nets at a cricket academy in Karnal, a city in Haryana that is part of the National Capital Region.
But despite following all the routines prescribed by the India team management with the facilities available, will it be easy to get back to rhythm back quickly?
No point whining
Express speed is Saini’s hallmark. It has seen him climb the ladder rapidly from being a net bowler to Gautam Gambhir to playing 10 T20Is and five ODIs since his international debut in August, 2019. “I am a professional cricketer. Like people do different kinds of job, my job is to play cricket for which I get paid. I am lucky to have that opportunity. Now, if suddenly one is told that he has to stop doing his job, somewhere it does affect mentally.
“Under normal circumstances, by this time, IPL would have been over and the preparations for the T20 World Cup would have started in full swing.
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“I was living my dream, playing for India all over the world and out of nowhere, here is a situation where I can’t even go out of my house,” said Saini.
He last played for India in February during the tour of New Zealand and was in the squad for the ODI series against South Africa at home. That three-match series got cancelled in the second week of March to contain the spread of Covid-19.
“Can I complain? People from all walks of life are facing the same situation. So, there is no point whining. It is better that I maintain my focus, follow the process and adjust to the situation,” he said.
Faster than Archer
The process that Saini mentioned entails a journey back in express lane. In the 2019 edition of the Indian Premier League (IPL), a thunderbolt from Jofra Archer saw the speedometer crank up to 152.60 kmph. That was the fastest the England star had recorded. During the same edition of IPL, Navdeep Saini’s fastest was 152.85 kmph, his second best—152.83 kmph.
“The kind of workload that a fast bowler has is definitely different from other cricketers. I have ensured that I take things slowly and not get injured. I had a gym set up in my house during the lockdown. I practised to keep my reflexes intact. Whenever matches resume, the jump will not be too steep, I believe, for me,” said Saini. “I am still not going full tilt at the nets. It’s a gradual process.”
Not sure when the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) will hold a national camp for its centrally contracted players, the 27-year-old is happy to do his bit at nets till then.
“I can’t get match practice now. So, visualisation becomes very important. I have been bowling at the nets; setting my own targets, like what I would do in a particular match situation. For a professional cricketer, things like gym and diet are necessary but more important than that is maintaining the intensity that would be replicated in a match. In the current situation, I can only achieve that by thinking that I am bowling in a match,” said Saini.
Having so far featured in the limited overs format only, Saini wants to add some more tricks up his sleeves.
“My forte is speed. So, variation becomes very important. Like how I would set up a particular batsman. How I can lure him into a mistake and surprise him with my speed. Another aspect is bowling long spells. Results may not come in one short spell, so I should be fit enough to bowl for a longer period,” said Saini.
“Maybe if there are some domestic matches before international cricket resumes for India, it would give me some valuable practice.”
Along with the attempt to bowl longer spells, Saini will have to learn to bowl without using saliva to shine the ball. “It does affect the shine of the ball. You could see that in the first Test between West Indies and England. If you ban an old method there will be disadvantages, but the advantage is that I have time to adjust. This is a new normal for all professions, same is with ours.”
Flashback for boost
As for motivation to keep working hard, Saini always goes back to his debut against West Indies in a T20I last year in Lauderhill, USA. He took 3/17, the best figures by an Indian in the game.
“India won the game and I had a role to play in that. I was even awarded the Man of the Match. In my debut match, winning the best player’s award was special.
“I have never taken the help of any mental coach and I did not feel any pressure going into that match. And I don’t feel pressure now. Ultimately, it’s about making the best out of what I have got,” he said.