Wriddhiman Saha: from the sidelines to the starring role
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Wriddhiman Saha was the fourth highest scorer among Indians, after Cheteshwar Pujara, K.L. Rahul and Ajinkya Rahane, in the just concluded four-match series against Australia that India won 2-1 on Tuesday.
This is no fluke. Over the last 14 Test matches, Saha has emerged as the crisis man at No.6. Though he scored only 31 runs in the first innings of the last Test at Dharamsala, his 96-run partnership with Ravindra Jadeja was critical in India getting a psychologically decisive lead.
“They (captain and coach) have a created a conducive environment,” explains Saba Karim, who was part of the selection committee for four years. “They have made him feel that he is an important member of the side. The kind of space given by management has helped his game in the same way Pujara has been backed.”
It has been a long waiting game for this unpretentious cricketer. Saha had to wait many years, for Deep Dasgupta’s exit, to get into the Bengal Ranji Trophy team in 2007. By the time Saha could make his first-class debut in November 2007, Mahendra Singh Dhoni was already a Twenty20 World Cup-winning captain and a wicketkeeper-batsman for India.
“Dhoni’s success at the international level was always a motivation for small-town boys. Saha’s father Prasanta was a football goalkeeper in the 1970s and wanted his son to follow in his footsteps. But he chose cricket when he came to our coaching camp,” recalls Jayanta Bhowmick, Saha’s childhood coach from Siliguri.
Saha made his Test debut in February 2010 against South Africa as a specialist batsman (after Rohit Sharma suffered an injury on the morning of the match). Two years later, he got another chance in Adelaide (January 2012) when Dhoni was fined for slow over-rate and had to sit out. Almost three years later (December 2014), Saha played his third Test, again in Adelaide, after Dhoni retired from the longest format.
In the next eight Test matches Saha played, no one complained of missing Dhoni the wicketkeeper. But Dhoni the batsman was being missed as the Bengal wicketkeeper averaged around 21 with just two 50s.
It wasn’t entirely surprising when Ravichandran Ashwin was promoted ahead of Saha at No.6 in the batting order on the West Indies tour in 2016. Even if it was largely a recognition of Ashwin’s improved batting, it also reflected poorly on Saha, who had a better batting average (around 44) than Ashwin at the first-class level.
Adding insult to injury was the superb batting performance of Parthiv Patel (who scored 195 runs in four innings at an average of 65), who came as a replacement (when Saha got injured during the England Test series last year) after a hiatus of eight years.
Such was Patel’s inspirational comeback that the Irani Trophy match between Ranji champions Gujarat (Patel was the captain) and Rest of India (ROI) in January was billed as a battle between two wicketkeepers.
Saha failed to open his account in the first innings. In the second, ROI needed 379 to win and had lost four wickets for 63 runs when Saha scored an unbeaten double hundred to take his team to victory.
Match won, the Test team selection formalities were completed and, more importantly, he got his batting position back against Bangladesh in the Hyderabad Test last month.
The 32-year-old scored his first Test ton on his comeback. The selection committee was unanimous in its choice for India’s No.1 wicketkeeper and M.S.K. Prasad (himself a former India wicketkeeper) categorically stated that Saha had nothing to prove apart from his fitness.
“It’s a great plus for the players,” Saha had said after his first ton. “Because after an injury break, when one comes back, if you are clearly told that as and when you recover you will be back in the team, the individual gets more motivated and that helps in your performance.”
Saha scored his second ton when Ranchi hosted its first-ever Test match against the Australians a fortnight ago. “He has always stood up when the team needs him and this game was no different,” captain Virat Kohli said in his post-match conference in Ranchi.
“He’s one guy who is always willing to do anything for the team. He has no problems in batting after Ashwin, before Ashwin, whenever we want him to do it. He plays any kind of role—positive, defensive, you know, whatever we ask him to do, he never says no,” added Kohli.
Saha doesn’t have a charismatic personality like his predecessor, Dhoni, but he is as valuable to the team. The rise of Dhoni from a small town like Ranchi is part of cricket folklore and in many ways Saha’s journey isn’t too different. Siliguri is more low-profile than Ranchi, which is almost 500km away from Saha’s hometown.
Saha the batsman now looks more relaxed. “Initially, when I came into the Test team, I played those shots—the sweep and the shot over the top stepping out—hesitantly, but now I am 100% confident,” he said in Ranchi.
Many observers believe he should not be compared with Dhoni—the former captain was a completely different package, and perhaps an aberration, like former Australian wicketkeeper Adam Gilchrist. It took Dhoni 40 matches to score three centuries; Saha has done it in 25.
If Saha keeps improving, matching Dhoni’s career average (around 38) will not be difficult. That will be an accomplishment for a player who takes pride in calling himself a wicketkeeper first.
Vimal Kumar is the author of Sachin: Cricketer Of The Century and The Cricket Fanatic’s Essential Guide. He tweets at @Vimalwa.