Matches (21)
PAK v WI [W] (1)
IPL (2)
County DIV1 (5)
County DIV2 (4)
WT20 WC QLF (Warm-up) (5)
RHF Trophy (4)
Match Analysis

Saurabh Kumar moves up India's spin queue with another display of tireless control

The left-arm spinner has already earned a call-up to the Test squad, and on Monday he showed just why

Shashank Kishore
Shashank Kishore
Saurabh Kumar has been among the best red-ball spinners in Indian cricket over the last five years  •  Gallo Images/Getty Images

Saurabh Kumar has been among the best red-ball spinners in Indian cricket over the last five years  •  Gallo Images/Getty Images

"Main carrom-varrom ball nahin daalta."
This was Saurabh Kumar, speaking to ESPNcricinfo after he was picked to be a stand-by in the India Test squad that toured South Africa at the turn of the year. Broadly, Saurabh was saying that he doesn't bowl the carrom ball. But there was more; with the addition of the "varrom", he was saying he doesn't need to.
Saurabh wasn't being cocky about his bowling. He was only being confident in his ability to trick batters without needing a variation that turns the other way, and that he had enough weapons in his arsenal anyway: clever use of the crease, flight, dip, and all the other elements that make left-arm orthodox spinners a joy to watch.
"The more you focus on variations, the less you will focus on the simple things," Saurabh had continued. "My mantra is: keep it simple, and let the batsmen make mistakes."
On Monday, Karnataka found out just how complicated life can be for batters when Saurabh keeps things simple. Without doing anything fancy, he had them on a string during the Ranji Trophy quarter-final in Alur.
It was clear very early that Saurabh wasn't going to give the batters anything to work with. If they wanted to score off him, they had to take a chance, whether it was to step out and hit him against the turn or to go right back and take him on with the cut. If you were in two minds, he had enough tricks in the bag to nab you.
R Samarth and Manish Pandey both paid the price for being indecisive. And it wasn't like they were trying to find their rhythm. Samarth had blasted his way to a half-century. It wasn't the typical Samarth who puts his head down and bores bowling attacks into submission. This was a Samarth who had raced off the blocks, punching and cutting fast bowlers the moment they erred. This was Samarth picking up boundaries knowing fully well that the surface had enough in it to keep the bowlers interested all day.
Ditto with Pandey. When he came in at 97 for 3, he stood between Uttar Pradesh's bowlers and a Karnataka collapse. The lower order seemed set to be put to a stern test. But Pandey didn't seem to have gotten the memo. He made run-scoring look ridiculously easy. He helped Karnataka recover with his typical mix of the unorthodox and the conventional.
Pandey and KV Siddharth put on a half-century stand in quick time to briefly put UP on the defensive. The chirp, the extra close-in fielders - they were all gone. The pressure had eased considerably, and Karnataka were on the march again.
Across the 2018-19 and 2019-20 Ranji Trophy seasons, he picked up 95 wickets in 18 matches at an average of 19.29. This included ten five-wicket hauls and a best of 7 for 32.
Saurabh was having none of it, though. From one end, he kept wheeling away, with the intensity of a bowler who had trained specifically for this role: to hold one end up and build pressure for the bowlers from the other end to tap into. The scorecard will say he bagged four wickets. It won't reveal his hand in the other three.
Take the wicket of Mayank Agarwal. For two overs prior to his dismissal in the first session, Saurabh beat Agarwal with his entire gamut of variations. He beat him on the inside edge with the arm ball, and then bowled flatter and got the ball to bite off the pitch to rip past the outside edge. Then he deceived him in flight as Agarwal looked to step out, skip besides the line, and go inside-out. Then Agarwal shaped to cut but played back to a full delivery.
Being strangled for runs seemed to play on Agarwal's mind. It had been a scratchy innings until then, a struggle for timing and rhythm. This wasn't the Agarwal who races off the blocks and puts the pressure right back on the bowlers.
Survival was his primary thought and Saurabh had threatened it more than once. So, when Shivam Mavi came on having already tickled his ribs a few overs earlier, Agarwal tried to look for runs, and in trying to hop back to tuck one away, strangled one to the wicketkeeper. A 57-run opening stand had been broken, and Uttar Pradesh were off the mark belatedly.
The secret to Saurabh's success is in his ability to wheel away tirelessly. This is an aspect that possibly went in his favour when the Indian team management asked for net bowlers. Saurabh has been a constant presence at India's training sessions over the last two years at home. In February this year, he went a step further. A maiden call-up to the Test squad came his way. It was reward for all the toil over the years, first for Services and then for UP.
Saurabh has grown up bowling on damp tracks, on surfaces where he has had to find ways to reinvent himself, because UP's factory of swing bowlers have tended to hog the limelight. He prides himself on bowling on any surface. If there is a hint of assistance, he is ready to turn an inch into an acre, like he did on Monday.
Having played a perfect assist in Agarwal's dismissal, he had Samarth caught in two minds. Two balls after he was beaten neck and crop, Samarth failed to keep the cut down and point took a dolly. Saurabh was off the mark.
He should have had Pandey soon after too, on 1. Pandey loves to dominate. Saurabh held his end of the bargain by offering him flight, only to deceive him in the air. Half the job was done, but Ankit Rajpoot got too close to the ball at mid-off and shelled the catch. Disheartened? No way. Saurabh continued to wheel away.
He would eventually have Pandey play back to an arm ball and nick him off, before dismissing S Sharath first ball as he jabbed at a delivery that turned and bounced. Even at the fag end of the day, he showed the same energy as he did prior to lunch. The moment he saw batters trying to go after him, he cleverly varied his pace. Ask K Gowtham, who advanced down the pitch only to mishit to mid-off.
On a day in which only 72 overs were possible, Saurabh bowled over a third of them and went at just a touch over two an over. As well as helping control the game with his economy, he took the wickets that put UP in a commanding position. His overall figures read 29-6-67-4.
If India are looking for spinners beyond R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja in Test cricket, there's Axar Patel, Kuldeep Yadav, Jayant Yadav and... you will have to scratch your head a few times. And then you chance upon Saurabh's numbers, and it hits you how consistent he has been in domestic cricket.
Across the 2018-19 and 2019-20 Ranji Trophy seasons, he picked up 95 wickets in 18 matches at an average of 19.29. This included ten five-wicket hauls and a best of 7 for 32. If such returns haven't earned him widespread attention, it's perhaps only because he doesn't play in the IPL. Public memory, in any case, is short. It can't have helped that there was no red-ball domestic cricket in India in 2020-21, thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic.
But India's selectors and team management have kept a close eye on Saurabh, because he has heart and skill, and plenty of both. As he showed on Monday, with his tireless control on a hot day, against a line-up known to dominate spin.
If he can bowl UP to victory in the quarterfinals and beyond, he will have taken another step towards his ultimate goal.

Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo