India vs West Indies: Earthen pots, tennis ball cricket, mother as batsman: The Navdeep Saini story
It’s difficult to play cricket in saree. It becomes near impossible with utensils in hand instead of a cricket bat. But try telling that to Navdeep Saini. Of course, the 26-year-old who bamboozled the West Indian big hitters on his T20I debut, screaming ‘I’m here to bowl fast’ might be considerate but a 12-year-old Navdeep was far from it. The first batsman (woman) that Navdeep Saini ever bowled to was his mother, who only knew kitchen utensils can only be used to prepare daily meals for her small family till the time Navdeep – her younger son – forced her to wield them like a cricket bat.
Taraori, a small town or kasbah as the locals like to refer, some 10-12 kilometres away from Haryana’s Karnal, is not the ideal breeding ground for a budding cricketer. Farming, family business and government jobs top the chart, explaining why a young Navdeep felt the need to plead, prod and sometimes even force his mother to stand like a batsman while he bowled in full tilt. With his father, a retired Haryana Roadways driver away on duty for the better part of the day and elder brother fostering dreams of settling down abroad, Navdeep had very few companions to play cricket with while growing up. And when his mother declined, he used to place earthen pots as wickets and bowl to them, break them, shatter them into pieces, the finer the pieces greater the joy, it meant he was bowling fast.
Upon knowing his younger son’s fascination with bowling fast, Navdeep’s father Amarjeet Saini decided to stalk his house with dozens of earthen pots. If Navdeep used to break two, his father used to buy four, the number of pots kept growing and so did Navdeep’s pace. The fixation, sheer delight of blowing away the obstacles in front of him just by using the weapon called cricket ball in his hand turned into an addiction for Navdeep.
The same delight sparked in his eyes when he uprooted the stumps of Shimron Hetmyer in his first T20I. A couple of balls earlier he had dismissed Nicholas Pooran to grab his first international wicket but he was out caught, the celebrations were reserved. The real growl came when the pot-breaker disturbed the woodwork.
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“I can’t explain what joy we felt when he took the first wicket. He used to say ‘daddy I will always keep working hard no matter what happens’ and now all that has paid off. He asked how did I feel after his debut. I could only bless him and say, ‘son you won’t understand what joy you’ve given us,” an emotional Amarjeet Saini told Hindustan Times in an exclusive chat, informing that he along with his wife and Navdeep’s 97-year-old grandfather had been glued to the television since Saturday evening. Sunday morning, however, was spent attending congratulatory calls from ecstatic neighbours, local MLAs and even the Chief Minister of Haryana.
“The maiden he bowled in the last over was simply outstanding… I don’t know much about the technicalities but I think bowling a maiden in the last over of a T20 is very rare,” said a proud Amarjeet.
For the 11-12-year-old Navdeep, turning the pots into dust was hard work but for the teenager Navdeep it became a walk in the park. Soon wickets replaced the pots and batsman with proper bats took his mother’s place but two things remained constant, Navdeep’s hard work and his raw pace, so effective that batsmen in his district felt the need to wear abdomen guards even while facing him with tennis balls.
Slowly Navdeep had started to spread his wings, his name did rounds in every part of Karnal. But there was no proper structure to his dreams. No one knew how to turn this asset into a proper fast bowler. He had started earning alright but they were not even enough to fetch him bowling shoes. What next? The answer came from former India A and Delhi all-rounder Sumit Narwal, who along with his brother Amit came up with a local version of IPL, the Karnal Premier League. It was an exact rip-off from IPL, it had 8 teams, young cricketers and an auction to decide which player will play for which team. And above all, it was supposed to be played with leather ball and under lights, something which Navdeep had never experienced in his life.
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As it turned out, Navdeep had no problems in switching from the soft ball to the hard one. He terrorized batsmen with his pace and it did not take long for him to attract a good bidding price, some 10,000 rupees at that time. But Saini knew it was not enough to support his family and give flight to his dreams, so every now and then he used to slip out and play in different tennis ball tournaments across Karnal and earn from 500-1000 rupees per match.
His tryst with tennis ball stopped when Sumit Narwal, impressed with his performance in the Karnal Premier League, decided to call him at Feroz Shah Kotla as a net bowler for the senior Delhi team.
There he troubled the likes of Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir and Mithun Manhas with his raw pace. He was erratic, yes, but his pace could give nightmares to even the best. Sumit, who refuses to take any credit for Navdeep’s rise, then decided to shift him to Delhi and help hone his skills. Navdeep is not the only cricketer from Karnal Sumit spotted. There were two others – Mohit Kalyan, a batsman and Sanjay Behl, another fast bowler, both Ranji cricketers for Haryana now – who used to train with Navdeep.
“Navdeep was destined to do great things. He was always very hard working and disciplined but he took it to another level after coming to Delhi. Me, Sanjay and Navdeep used to train together under Sumit Narwal and I can’t remember a single day when Navdeep skipped his training or drifted away from his daily schedule. He was so disciplined, so particular about when to go to sleep, when to wake up, what to eat. He refused to hang out with us after practice as he felt it might affect his bowling or fitness,” said Mohit Kalyan, who also happened to be Navdeep’s first captain in Dayal Singh College’s cricket team.
Apart from Sumit, former India opener and then Delhi captain Gautam Gambhir too played a major role in fast-tracking Navdeep into the Delhi Ranji side against all odds. Despite having all the discipline and ability to bowl in the high 140s, Navdeep had a forgettable debut season in 2013-14 but that did not deter him. In fact, he came back fitter and stronger, became the leader of Delhi’s fast bowling unit and slowly forced his way into the India A sides.
All this while the Taraori boy in Navdeep remained the same. “There has been no change in him at all. He’s still the same. He played IPL, played for India A but I can proudly say as a father that his feet are firmly on the ground,” said Amarjeet hoping that the FloridaT20I is just the beginning for his son’s laurels.
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