Naveen: Taunts from crowd 'give me passion to play well'
Ever since his run-in with Virat Kohli, the LSG quick has had to cope with fans taunting him on social media and on the field
Rashid Khan. Mohammad Nabi. Mujeeb Ur Rahman. Noor Ahmad. In recent years, Afghanistan's spinners have been in demand at the IPL, and this season a seamer has joined them in the spotlight. After making a splash in the Caribbean Premier League, T20 Blast, Bangladesh Premier League and Lanka Premier League, Naveen-ul-Haq earned his first IPL contract this season and emerged as one of the bright spots for Lucknow Super Giants, taking 11 wickets in eight games at an average of 19.89 and economy rate of 7.82.
In the Eliminator against Mumbai Indians in Chennai on Wednesday, Naveen claimed 4 for 38, but a batting collapse in a chase of 183 put Super Giants out of the tournament.
"Yeah, it was an achievable target, and the wicket was playing quite well," Naveen said after the game. "I think in between we couldn't handle the pressure and we gave away three-four wickets in quick succession. That was the turning point in the game.
"To be honest, it [my personal performance] was good. But we could have done better as a team. Individual performances don't count. At the end of the day, our team's goal was to win the trophy. So, my performance comes second, and it was a good season for me. I've learnt quite a few things from this IPL and [will] hopefully come back stronger."
While his captain Krunal Pandya and Yash Thakur kept offering pace to Mumbai's batters in the powerplay, Naveen assessed the Chennai conditions better and slowed it up. Suryakumar Yadav and Cameron Green couldn't manufacture pace for themselves. After tricking Suryakumar with a 107kph legcutter, Naveen went wide of the crease and snuck in an even slower offcutter (105kph) through the defences of Green.
"You have to assess the conditions and see what they offer," Naveen said. "I think the pitch was offering a bit of help. It wasn't like we were bowling three-four slower ones in an over, but just to keep the batsmen guessing you have to vary your pace and vary your line and length. It counts in T20 cricket - it's a fast format and you have to adjust quickly. You have to be one step ahead of the batter."
Ahead of the 2021 T20 World Cup in the UAE, Naveen had spoken to ESPNcricinfo about getting his slower balls to dip sharply at batters.
"Yes, I've worked a lot on my slower balls," Naveen had said. "In the [T20] Blast you play a home game and then an away game against the same opposition. Once, when I played one team, they started targeting my slower balls - they were standing back and waiting for them. This stuck in my mind and I worked it out during the tournament that if teams are standing back for my slower balls, then I will bowl fewer.
"Then, at the back end of the tournament, most of my wickets were not off slower ones. Maybe, I bowled three-four slower balls in my four-over spell. Earlier, I would be bowling ten slower balls in a four-over spell. Since they were lining me up for them, I changed it up. So slower balls became like a surprise [weapon]."
Tom Moody, the former Australia allrounder and an analyst for ESPNcricinfo, was impressed with Naveen's variety.
"What you find with his offcutter is he has got various levels of that offcutter as well," Moody said on ESPNcricinfo's T20 Time Out. "He's got a very slow offcutter that dips and it's a bit like fine spin bowlers. They spin the ball a millimetre, then they spin it an inch and then they spin it four inches.
"That was the genius of [Shane] Warne. Particularly when Shane Warne had his shoulder problems he couldn't rely on his flipper and his wrong'un as much as he did in the early parts of his career. His great skill was you didn't know how much his legbreak was going to spin and with that beautiful curve. And the same with Naveen. In this case, it's not just an offcutter; he has three different versions of that offcutter."
"If my body feels well, hopefully, I'll come and join the Afghanistan team and play in the ODI World Cup [in India]"Naveen-ul-haq
Naveen has also had to deal with pressure from off the field. Since he exchanged words with Virat Kohli during an ill-tempered game between Royal Challengers Bangalore and Super Giants, the crowd has been chanting Kohli's name to rile Naveen up. Naveen, though, has shut out the noise and on Wednesday he celebrated each wicket with his fingers in his ears.
"I enjoy it. I like the crowd chanting his [Virat Kohli's] name or any other player's name," Naveen said. "It gives me passion to play well for my team.
"Well, I don't concentrate on the noise from the outside or anything else. I just focus on my own process. It's not like if the crowd is chanting or anyone is saying something… it doesn't affect me. As professional sportsmen, you have to take this in your stride. One day you will not do your best for the team and the fans will give it to you. On another day, you will do a special thing for your team and the same people can chant your name. So, [it's] basically a part and parcel of the game."
Naveen is currently on a break from ODI cricket - his last game in the format was in January 2021 - but he hopes to return for the World Cup in India later this year.
"For now, I'm not playing ODI cricket," Naveen said. "I've taken a break since 12 months ago. I'll see my body condition and see how I'm going. If my body feels well, hopefully, I'll come and join the Afghanistan team and play in the ODI World Cup [in India]. So, yeah, fingers crossed. We will see."
Deivarayan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo