You notice the wolf tattoo on Navdeep Saini's left forearm immediately as he strolls out to train ahead of Royal Challengers Bangalore's first home game of the season, against Mumbai Indians on Thursday. He's a little shy to show it off much at first, but then opens up, explaining how it signifies 'free spirit'; it sounds like he has been asked about it before: "My brother and I used to watch a lot of wolf movies when we were kids. We've watched it all. I used to love it. If you see, a wolf never performs in a circus. He roams around out there in the jungle. That's why I got this."
In October 2012, the free-spirited, 20-year-old boy arrived in Delhi from Karnal in neighbouring Haryana. It was the onset of winter, and the start of the Ranji Trophy season just days away. Delhi had in their line-up Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, Virat Kohli and Ishant Sharma. Saini, who had camped at a friend's place, jumped off his chair as he read about the stars in a Hindi daily. He got on a bus and reached Feroz Shah Kotla, just to see what the heroes were like in flesh and blood, but returned disappointed as the security guards didn't allow him to get anywhere close to the players. He vowed to return someday.
The following year, Saini tried his luck at the Roshanara grounds. He thought a club setting would make it easier to shake hands with the Delhi stars. He turned up with a set of whites and a tattered pair of boots, just so that he passed off as a net bowler. As it turned out, Delhi needed one that day because a number of designated net bowlers hadn't been informed of the change in venue. Until then, Saini was just a tennis-ball bowler, who earned prize money playing local tournaments. Bowling with the red ball for the first time, he kept beating Gambhir for pace. The shy boy would mouth a 'sorry' every time he did so.
Gambhir had received some feedback from Sumit Narwal, who had seen the boy bowl in the Karnal Premier League, a tournament he used to conduct. But now, he'd seen him bowl for real. After the session, Gambhir would arrange for a pair of spikes and get Saini to be a regular at the Delhi nets. This was Saini's initiation into Delhi cricket, one that resulted in a number of backroom fights as well as frosty relations between Gambhir and the DDCA selectors. Eventually, the captain had his way and Saini broke into the Delhi squad during the 2013-14 Ranji Trophy season.
"Gautam bhaiyya has had the biggest role in my life so far," he says of the influence that has left quite an imprint. So much so that Saini didn't think twice while having to miss out on an opportunity to bowl at the India nets so that he could feature in the 2017-18 Ranji Trophy final against Vidarbha. "He was the one who gave me an opportunity when I didn't have much idea about [red- ball] cricket, didn't have shoes also. He showed a lot of confidence in me."
Six years on, Saini been part of a Ranji final, delivered telling spells for Gambhir, the captain, and the same guys who he wanted to watch as a youngster are all watching him now.
Now, Kohli throws the ball to him in the first over of Royal Challengers Bangalore's 2019 opener. Nehra is his bowling coach, while Gambhir and Sehwag are commentating, watching the wiry 26-year old steam in, hustling Shane Watson for pace and pinging him on the head with a short ball. "Bahut confidence mila, sir. Accha laga." He smiles sheepishly when asked about the ball.
Saini bowls briskly, upwards of 140 clicks, and has a whippy action and quick arm speed that he attributes to his familiarity with the tennis ball.
"All the help I've got in my bowling is all because of tennis ball cricket," he says. "If you want to bowl full with 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. To bowl fast, I believe my fitness has to be at 110%, only then I can showcase my skills. If I bulk up too much, I feel my arm speed, which is my plus point, will slow down."
The technicalities of fast bowling is something Saini admits to not having much idea of earlier, but has developed his knowledge over the years. In the last 18 months alone, he has been part of India's net-bowling contingent in South Africa and England. He has been an India A regular and earned a maiden Test call-up for the one-off Test against Afghanistan last June. The big push hasn't come yet, but he isn't too stressed.
"I realised there's a lot of difference," Saini says, of bowling in a domestic set-up as compared to the national team. "The main thing is, when you are bowling in the India nets, you can't afford to relax. 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. Virat keeps telling me: 'show the same intensity of a match at the nets also. In the nets if you're conditioned to give 110%, you will be at 95% level in the match, because there's added pressure.' Bowling to top batsmen like Kohli and De Villiers gives me a lot of confidence."
At every training, Nehra is spontaneous to offering words of advice to Saini and the other bowlers. Ahead of the clash against Mumbai Indians, Saini was seen practicing wide yorkers, to Shimron Hetmyer and Colin de Grandhomme, with an old ball. Up front, he was handed the new ball while bowling to the top three. While it's still early days in the season, Saini wants to use this opportunity to adjust to different T20 scenarios.
"Ashu bhaiyya has vast knowledge about T20s. When I bowl in the nets, I get to learn a lot from him," Saini says. "He tells me how to plan against different batsmen. I've performed well [in domestic cricket], but if I do well in my practice sessions as well, if we prepare like we are playing in a match, that helps. It helps my consistency also."
For now, it's the confidence he derives from a strong start that he wants to carry forward. Life hasn't quite been the same in the last 18 months. While the drive to Delhi from his home town has gotten a tad more comfortable, he's focused on making every opportunity count, be it for Delhi, India A, the IPL or even for his colony team, bowling with the kind of free spirit and verve he showed many years ago when he first turned up to a big city with big aspirations.