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Match Analysis

Saurabh Kumar reaps rewards by mixing pace and lengths

Left-arm spinner picks up 4 for 48 to help India A take a first-innings lead of 56 after they were bowled out for 293

Ashish Pant
Saurabh Kumar picked up four wickets to put India A ahead  •  Manoj Bookanakere/KSCA

Saurabh Kumar picked up four wickets to put India A ahead  •  Manoj Bookanakere/KSCA

Saurabh Kumar has made a habit of dismissing key batters in the opposition camp. Be it the 2021-22 Ranji Trophy quarter-final, where he sent back R Samarth, Manish Pandey and Mayank Agarwal to finish with seven wickets in the match, or the semi-final, where he got rid of centurion Hardik Tamore in the first innings before snapping up Prithvi Shaw in the second - Saurabh has delivered the telling blows.
On Friday, the left-arm spinner was at it again, picking up the important scalps against New Zealand A in the third unofficial Test. His 4 for 48 helped India A take a first-innings lead of 56 after they were bowled out for 293.
The home side needed early wickets on day two, and Mukesh Kumar and Rahul Chahar did just that, reducing the visitors to 99 for 5. But then came a 114-run partnership between the two Auckland boys Mark Chapman and Sean Solia. With the pitch assisting both seamers and spinners, the duo decided to take the aggressive route. Chapman, in particular, picked up boundaries consistently. He had recently spoken about his love for playing the sweeps and reverse sweeps, and he unfurled them in abundance against Chahar and Saurabh on either side of the tea break.
With stroke-making suddenly looking easy, the pitch unresponsive, and the bowling flat, India A captain Priyank Panchal looked bereft of options. This was when Saurabh stepped up.
He was happy to play the waiting game, varying his pace and lengths, enticing both Chapman and Solia to go for their shots. In fact, Chapman took him for 32 runs off 23 balls, but the bowler had the final say.
Having already hit Saurabh for two sixes, Chapman looked to clear the ropes again. This time, though, Saurabh saw him coming down and pulled his length back. Chapman was unable to reach the pitch of the ball and ended up offering Rajat Patidar a comfortable catch at long-on for 92. Soon after, Solia too fell to an expansive pull for 54, and New Zealand A, who at one point threatened to take a lead, were all out for 237.
But what was going through Saurabh's mind when New Zealand seemed like taking the game away?
"Chapman was batting well during that partnership [and the plan was] he should not be given runs for a while so that he makes some mistakes on his own," Saurabh said after the day's play. "There was a good partnership between the bowlers from both the ends and he got out looking for runs.
"I was mixing the pace - slow, fast, slow, fast. The pitch required that the pace should be changed and I did exactly that."
Saurabh is a man of few words. Quiz him repeatedly about his mindset and approach ahead of a match, and all he says is that he tries to keep things simple.
But his bowling is anything but simple. He might not have a lot of variations, but he has got control over his craft. It is his this quality that has fetched him 109 wickets in 21 matches at 21.30 in the last three Ranji Trophy seasons, and a call-up to India A and eventually to the Test side for the tour to Sri Lanka.
Though he did not get a game for India, he got the opportunity to interact with the senior players. "The experience was great, there was a lot to learn," Saurabh said. "I talked to Jadeja bhai, Ashwin bhaiya, and it was great. Wherever there will be opportunities to play, I will play and try to give my best."
While he is primarily a bowler, Saurabh has been working hard on his batting. He was padded up to come in as nightwatcher in case India A lost a second wicket in their second innings. He was not needed but made sure to take a few throwdowns before sitting down to talk with the reporters. Does he have the ambition of transitioning into an allrounder, then? Saurabh was coy.
"I will definitely want to contribute with the bat but I am a bowler who bats a little bit," he said. "I try to keep improving myself, be it bowling or batting. I practise well."
And that practice is producing results too.

Ashish Pant is a sub-editor with ESPNcricinfo