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Cricket news - Navdeep Saini - cutting the wolf loose on pace

Navdeep Saini made his IPL debut in the opening game of the 2019 season

There's an interesting study about how wolves hunt. More often than not, the experienced one in the pack attacks the prey while the young ones play the supporting cast. But that's not the interesting bit. The interesting bit lies in the character of individual wolves. The creatures, who've mastered the art of working in a group, are a set of extremely cunning individuals. They are intelligent, tenacious and prefer being calculated over being aggressive. And yet, they manage to keep the killer instinct intact making them more dangerous.

Navdeep Saini wears a wolf face tattoo on his left forearm - sneaking out of tall bushes - and while he comes across as a shy individual, he has no hesitation in stating that he carries the killer instincts of a wolf when he's bowling. "If you see, a wolf never performs in the circus. He roams around out there in the jungle," he says. Watch Saini bowl and he'll convince you to not argue against his claim. In Royal Challengers Bangalore's opening game against Chennai Super Kings, the pacer made his debut. On a track under-prepared and tailor-made for the spinners, he bowled the second over as RCB started their defence of just 70. On his third delivery, he got a nasty short ball to climb up and ping Shane Watson on the helmet.

On Tuesday (March 26), at the RCB net session, Saini was against two of the best - AB de Villiers and Virat Kohli batting in tandem on a centre-practise wicket. Both batsmen had been knocking balls at the far end of the M Chinnaswamy Stadium for a while before batting together. The idea was simple - to get the eye in against throwdowns and then go for power-hitting against the bowlers. The first ball Saini bowled at de Villiers - short ball around shoulder height - was easily smashed over square leg for a six. What stands out was the next ball and also showed why the pacer has managed to edge ahead of Kulwant Khejroliya to find a place in the playing XI. Saini got one to kick off from length, forced de Villiers to fend at it and beat the outside edge. Smiles were exchanged and Saini had established he isn't fazed by the big names or the big stage.

"The main thing is, when you are bowling to big players, you can't afford to relax," he says about his approach to bowling to international stars. "You have to give 110 per cent. You can't compromise on anything in any department. The mindset also changes because that level is totally different.

"Bowling to top batsmen like Kohli and de Villiers gives me a lot of confidence, helps me prepare better for matches. He (Kohli) keeps telling me: show the same intensity of a match at the nets also. In the nets, if you're conditioned to give 110 per cent, you will be at 95 per cent level in the match, because there's added pressure. If any player wants to go to next level, the intensity of the preparations needs to increase as well."

Performing at the big stage is what Saini has been craving for the last two years. Having been picked up for Rs 3 crore in the 2018 auction - after a heated battle between RCB and Delhi Capitals - he spent most of his time at the bench last year. He comes into IPL 2019 with another season of impressive domestic performances behind him. In the Vijay Hazare Trophy, he bagged 16 wickets from eight games at an average of just 19.18. His performances, however, dipped a bit in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy where he managed just six wickets from seven games. "The result does not matter. What matters is how you've performed. If you've done well, you get a lot of confidence. I feel extremely confident," he says. "It (the last match) was my debut, I was nervous but if your captain has equal belief in you, it helps. I believe my fitness has to be at 110%, only then I can showcase my skills."

One of Saini's strength is the extra bounce he generates because of his action. Having strengthened his shoulder playing tennis ball cricket, the pacer had never played with leather ball till 2013. Having honed his skills playing tennis ball tournaments, he had gone to see the Delhi Ranji team practice at the Roshanara cricket ground. "I just went to see how Kohli, Sehwag, Gambhir, Nehra and all these stars in real life," he gushes. Sumit Narwal spotted Saini in the Karnal Premier League before Gautam Gambhir took note of his talent in Delhi. The former India opener had several run-ins with the selectors because Saini came from Haryana and was considered an 'outsider', before eventually getting him in. Saini repaid the faith as he bagged 34 wickets in the 2017-18 season at an average of 22.73.

His performances opened several doors for him. He was invited to bowl at the India nets before the South Africa tour and the Sri Lanka series at home and eventually found a place in the India Test side for the one-off Test against Afghanistan after Mohammed Shami's injury. "All the improvement I've made in my bowling is all because of tennis ball cricket," he stresses. "If you want to bowl full with a tennis ball, it's crucial you are fast. Since I bowled a lot with the tennis ball, it helped me build strength. Because of that, my arm speed increased as well."

Saini doesn't hesitate in admitting his life has turned around completely since his evening stroll to see the India stars. But believes the main change has been come off the field - the mindset - that has helped him turn his life around. He's now keen to make a mark.

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