As soon as Delhi were bowled out in their first innings, Navdeep Saini and Kulwant Khejroliya dashed to the dressing room upstairs to seek out Gautam Gambhir. The young pacers had watched Mohammed Shami produce a six-wicket haul and keep Delhi's first-innings lead down to 112. Gambhir's advice to them was simple: there was no better time to produce a showstopping performance of their own.
"We spoke to Gautam bhaiyya, who told us: 'If you want to play at a higher level, then these are the kind of moments that mark you out'," Saini, 25, said after the match. "This was in our minds, and we wanted to do well and bowl long spells. We saw how Shami bhaiyya bowled today, so we felt if we also look to be aggressive we can get them out. That we have a young side is also an advantage."
Suitably pumped up, Saini and Khejroliya blasted out eight Bengal batsmen between them. Saini knocked over four of his own, including Manoj Tiwary and Sudip Chatterjee, and walked away with a match-haul of seven wickets as Delhi registered an innings victory inside three days and booked their spot in the Ranji Trophy final. With 29 wickets from seven games, Saini has been Delhi's second-highest wicket-taker so far this season, behind left-arm spinner Vikas Mishra. But, blockbuster showing in Ranji Trophy 2017-18 aside, he has been getting the attention of the national selectors for some time now, mainly for his ability to bowl at a sharp pace consistently. He provided a demonstration of that by frequently clocking speeds upwards of 140 kph in the semi-final - two such thunderbolts accounted for Aamir Gani and B Amit off successive deliveries.
As much as Saini looks like he has always belonged in this Delhi side, it wasn't the case to begin with. Hailing from Karnal in Haryana, Saini, who made his first-class debut in 2013-14, had to work extra hard to make a mark in Delhi's cricketing circles. His weak financial background didn't help matters either. "There were problems to begin with," he said. "My father works as a driver in the Haryana government and has been supportive of my cricket. But, my family couldn't afford the fees at the academy." Saini would play tennis-ball tournaments and eke out INR 200-300 as cash reward at the most. He used the money to enroll himself in the try-outs of the Karnal Premier League, a tournament conducted by Delhi seamer Sumit Narwal.
Excited by Saini's potential, Narwal brought him to Delhi where he was treated warmly by the seniors. Saini calls it a "life-changing" moment. "When someone plays from outside, there is more pressure on him," he said . "And senior players like [Virender] Sehwag bhaiyya, Gautam bhaiyya, Mithun Manhas, Narwal bhaiyya and Ashish [Nehra] bhaiyya asked me not to get bothered by external factors and advised me to focus on my game instead. I will never forget Gautam bhaiyya. Wherever I am now is because of him."
Saini also had to wrestle with injury issues during the first few years of his career. Realising the need to condition his body for the long haul, Saini worked harder with his personal trainer Ahmed Nasir ahead of the season. "Over the last three years, I used to get injured each time. So this year we put in more hard work and the results are there to see," he said. In August, Saini was picked for India A's tour of South Africa, where he finished with seven wickets in two games. The following month he was selected to play in the Duleep Trophy and was also part of the India A team that played against New Zealand A in Vijayawada. Saini admitted to being nervous ahead of the South Africa series, but a chat with Yuvraj Singh in the pre-tour preparatory camp at the National Cricket Academy helped clear his mind.
"Playing for India A for the first time, there was pressure. But, then I was alright," he said. "Before going to South Africa, Yuvraj paaji was there, so he told us about the conditions there and the lengths to hit. He asked me to practice bowling those lengths before going there because I wouldn't get any time to adjust to it. The camp was very useful.
"At the higher level, you need to bowl with patience. Only patience can take you forward. It's my strength. Like on a pitch like we saw today, the plan was to bowl wicket to wicket and aim for lbws and bowled."
Saini's natural area of operation is on the fuller side of a good length. He felt bowling with the tennis ball in his formative years helped him become good at it. "When you play with the tennis ball, you get hit a lot," he said. "To escape from that you have to bowl yorkers at the stumps. Constantly doing that has helped me develop those muscles that come into play while bowling yorkers. When you bowl with a leather ball the full length ball skids a lot more, it kicks off the surface like in the dismissals today.
"My arm-speed is very fast. So I can't build up my body structure a lot bigger than now, because if I do that my arm-speed will come down. As I am training, my speed develops. The more you bowl, the better your bowling muscles develop."
Like Saini, his bowling partner Khejroliya, also aged 25, has had to battle a few insecurities. Having been there and done that, Saini knew exactly how to guide him. "We are like brothers and are also room-mates. So we keep discussing at night what our plans should be," he said. "I have been around for the last four-five years, but this is his first season. So I keep supporting him. He didn't get many wickets in the last one or two matches - there was a dropped catch and all that. So I reassure and support him."
Back home, one of Saini's biggest supporters is his "100-plus-year-old" grandfather Karam Singh, a war veteran whom he says had fought in Subhash Chandra Bose's Indian National Army (INA). "He used to be a driver in the INA," Saini said. "He is still remarkably fit and even rides a bicycle. He doesn't understand any cricket, but derives a lot of pleasure watching me play on TV. I am sure he would have been watching this game as well."