In January 2008, then skipper Gautam Gambhir smashed an unbeaten 130 as Delhi strolled to a nine-wicket victory against Uttar Pradesh in the Ranji Trophy final. Few could have imagined then that Delhi would not play another final for a decade.
In the intervening years, Delhi cricket often found itself engulfed in controversy and the team struggled to recapture its past glory, even as bright young stars kept appearing every now and then.
One of those stars, Navdeep Saini, was spotted bowling in a tennis-ball tournament by former Delhi player Sumit Narwal (who had himself played in the 2008 Ranji final). An excited Narwal called up Gambhir, who was sufficiently impressed by what he saw in the nets to push Saini into the playing XI.
On Tuesday, the 25-year-old Saini amply repaid the faith shown in him, taking 4 wickets for 35 runs to rip through the Bengal batting line-up and bowl Delhi to victory by an innings and 26 runs – and its first Ranji final in 10 years. Saini, who consistently bowled at 140kmph, finished with 7 wickets for the game to bag the man of the match award.
Gautam Gambhir may no longer be captain but remains a key member of the Delhi team, top-scoring with 127 to drive the side to a winning position. He is the sole player from the last Ranji-winning Delhi squad who’s playing for the team this year (Shikhar Dhawan, the only other survivor of the Class of 2008, is on India duty).
And Gambhir he remains a major influence in the dressing room, as revealed by Sani, who was supposed to go to South Africa as a net bowler for the India side but decided not to on Gambhir’s advice. “I was happy that I would go to South Africa but when I called up Gautam bhaiyya, he said Delhi needs you now for the semifinal and if you do well, you will be automatically be in that Indian dressing room someday,” said Saini, whose grandfather, Karam Singh, was a driver in Subhas Chandra Bose’s Azad Hind Fauj.
If Saini’s performance on Tuesday is anything to go by, an India call-up may not be too far away.
Saini was ably backed up by Kulwant Khejroliya, who took 4/40 on a day that saw 17 wickets tumble, ending the five-day match on the third day itself. The Bengal batsmen panicked in the face of some raw pace and were bowled out for 86 in 24.4 overs, nullifying the lionhearted effort of Mohammad Shami.
The India pacer, who was playing his last match before flying out to South Africa next week, bowled his heart out to claim 6 for 122 as Delhi were restricted to 398, a lead of 112 runs only.
With plenty of time and plenty to play for, the stage was set for an intriguing contest. But Saini and Khejroliya turned it into a one-sided show.
Vikas Tokas provided the first breakthrough before walking off injured. He had opener Abhishek Raman trapped in front in the third over of the innings. Then, Abhimanyu Easwaran failed to capitalise on a dropped chance as he played to the same fielder (Kunal Chandela) in the very next ball off Khejroliya.
It was time for Saini to get into his special act. He immediately dislodged Sudip Chatterjee’s stumps, beating the batsman with sheer pace.
To make matters worse, Writtick Chatterjee (1) was run out due to a terrible mix-up with skipper Manoj Tiwary while going for the second run on an overthrow. As both batsmen found themselves at the same end, Chatterjee sacrificed his wicket by leaving the crease. But his sacrifice did not earn any dividends as Tiwary was soon castled by Saini with one that held its line to go past the batsman’s outside edge and hit the top of off stump.
Saini then struck on consecutive deliveries, removing Aamir Goni and B Amit, both being clean bowled. While the former shouldered arms to an inswinger that saw his off-stump dislodged, Amit was beaten by pace.
Excerpts taken from Times Of India | Archiman Bhaduri