The Sarafa Bazar night market in Indore serves up delightful varieties of street food, ranging from the poha jalebi, the signature breakfast dish of the city, to dal bafla. About four kilometres away from Sarafa Bazar is the Holkar Stadium, where tearaway Navdeep Saini offered the cricketing equivalent of those delightful varieties on Tuesday evening.
There was a 148kph yorker, which torpedoed into the middle-and-leg stumps of opener Danushka Gunathilaka. Then, there was a 106kph offcutter that floated into the edge of Bhanuka Rajapaksa's bat and streaked away to extra-cover. Then, there was a 144kph lifter that took off like a rocket and had Rajapaksa gloving it behind to the keeper. Having also breached the 150-kph barrier, Saini capped his spell with an excellent inswinging yorker that was just about dug out by Dhananjaya de Silva.
Even as a fit-again Jasprit Bumrah had a low-key return, the 27-year old Saini led India's revamped attack and had figures of 2 for 18 in his four overs, including 13 dots.
Sheer pace has always been Saini's calling card. When he left his hometown Karnal in Haryana to Delhi in October 2012, all he wanted to do was to bowl fast. After rattling batsmen in local tournaments, Saini then rushed Gautam Gambhir for pace at the Delhi nets.
It was that pace that helped Delhi into the 2017-18 Ranji Trophy final. It was that pace that subsequently helped Saini break into India's Test squad for the one-off Test against Afghanistan in Bengaluru in 2018. It was for that pace that Royal Challengers Bangalore had shelled out INR 3 crore in the IPL 2018 auction.
During his international debut in 2019 in the Lauderhill T20I against West Indies, the gold standard in T20 hitting, Saini flaunted his pace and even bounced out Nicholas Pooran. Saini's firecracker pace was also on display during his ODI debut against West Indies in Cuttack last December.
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Saini is barely 10 internationals old, but he's learning on the job and has added variations to his repertoire, lending more depth to the already well-stocked pace attack.
"Saini is a different case [in T20 cricket] because he has come from the domestic set-up into the IPL and into the Indian team," Kohli had said of the quick's evolution in Guwahati. "So, he has bowled quite a bit and has good understanding of lines and lengths and he's obviously got pace."
After Bumrah had given up seven runs in his first over on return, Saini entered as first-change in Indore and initially struggled with his lengths. Avishka Fernando laced a half-volley on the up through extra-cover before swatting a hip-high short ball to the midwicket boundary. Offspin-bowling allrounder Washington Sundar then gave India an opening by having Avishka holing out. In his following spells, Saini barged through that opening with a batting ram.
After Washington had delivered two thrifty overs, Kusal Perera and Gunathilaka were aiming to line up Saini to ramp up the scoring rate. Saini, however, ran in hard, hit the pitch harder, and kept Kusal to one run off two short balls. Gunathilaka then left his crease only to swish and miss another short ball. Having pushed Gunathilaka back, Saini sucker-punched the batsman with a ripping yorker. By the time, Gunathilaka had jabbed his bat down, the middle and leg stumps had been tilted back. Saini took flight and celebrated, Sri Lanka's batting went on a tailspin.
Then, in his third over, Saini cramped Oshada Fernando for room before unleashing the yorker, but Oshada jammed his bat down in the nick of time to survive. The old two-card trick had also reaped reward for Saini in his most-recent ODI in Cuttack.
By the time Saini returned to the attack for his last over, the 15th of the innings, Rajapaksa had got going with a whipped four off Shardul Thakur and Sri Lanka were 102 for 4. However, Saini cut down his pace and then cranked it up to bounce him out. Saini's burst set the scene for Thakur's triple-strike in the penultimate over of the innings. Game over for Sri Lanka.
"The first thing is to be confident, and only then can you bring in variations," Saini told Star Sports, the host broadcaster, after winning the Man-of-the-Match award. "I liked the yorker [to Gunathilaka] more because I nailed it better than expectations. I play both red-ball and white-ball cricket, and hence the more I play, the better I will get at them. When I made my T20 debut, all I thought of was pace. But as I have played more, I have realised that variations are important too."
Saini's range adds a new dimension to India's bowling attack, particularly on flat tracks, and in the absence of Deepak Chahar, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Mohammed Shami, he showed that he could be more than just a back-up.