Wriddhiman Saha has come a long way since his unexpected debut, as a specialist batsman, in Nagpur in February 2010. Only in the squad as back-up to Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Saha had to be pressed into action following a match-morning ankle injury to Rohit Sharma. Batting behind Dhoni at No. 7, he was bowled third-ball, shouldering arms to Dale Steyn, though he did make a battling 36 in the second innings before falling again to Steyn, trapped leg before.
Between then and January 2015, Saha’s Test appearances were no more than sporadic. He played a grand total of two matches in those five years, the first of them when Dhoni was suspended in Adelaide in January 2012, the second also in Adelaide, in December 2014 when Dhoni was out through an injury.
Two Tests later, Dhoni dramatically announced his retirement from Test cricket and finally, at 30, Saha was drafted in as the first-choice wicketkeeper for the first time. Since then, his career has steadily hit an upward curve; his work behind the stumps has been exemplary and, given greater responsibility with India largely playing with five batsmen, he has been more than passable in front of the sticks with his natural aggression and the wicketkeeper’s innate cheekiness.
Saha already has three centuries and five further fifties batting at No. 6 and 7, and averages a healthy 33.21. His adeptness with the bat, coupled with the skills that R Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja and now Hardik Pandya bring, is what has emboldened Indian team managements to persist with the five-bowler formula.
As much as his batting, however, or more than it, it is his work behind the stumps, to pacers but also to the spinners, that has been awesome. For over a decade, Dhoni spoilt Indian fans with his brilliance, particularly when standing up to the spinners and conjuring lightning-quick stumpings, or pulling run-outs out of thin air. What will happen when Dhoni goes? Saha will, as it turns out.
Without fuss or histrionics, Saha has been a towering presence with the big gloves on, his constant encouragement that has grown slightly in decibel levels commensurate with his increasing self-confidence shadowed by the fluency with which he moves on both sides, and the wonderful ‘play’ that helps him keep so flawlessly even on the most demanding of surfaces. On a tricky track in the second Test at the SSC ground, Saha conceded just four byes – off one ball, in the first innings – in 116.3 overs combined. This, on a track where the ball was exploding off the surface, taking off chunks, climbing alarmingly from time to time, and making life extremely difficult for batsman and keeper.
It was a veritable exhibition of exceptional footwork, great timing in when to rise with the ball, soft hands, keen eyes, and reflexes that helped him always remain unhurried and unflustered. It led Ravi Shastri, the head coach, to call him the best Indian wicketkeeper he had seen, and Virat Kohli to heap praise on the 32-year-old from unfashionable Shaktigarh.
“Four byes on that sort of pitch speaks of his quality,” the Indian captain said post match. “He is definitely the best keeper in this format, I will say. How agile he is! He is very safe behind the stumps.”
That agility expressed itself late on day three, when Sri Lanka were in the middle of an excellent rearguard action spearheaded by Dimuth Karunaratne and Kusal Mendis. The two had put on 191 and seemed set to frustrate India further by batting on unseparated to stumps when Saha sprang forward and to his left to hold on to an excellent catch as Mendis inside-edged a drive against Hardik Pandya on to his pad, and the ball ballooned up. The quality of the catch and the timing of the dismissal were just what a beleaguered India needed at that stage to lift themselves.
“First when he got the inner edge, I thought he would be bowled,” the soft-spoken Saha said on Monday (August 7) evening. “The ball came in but hit the pad and lobbed up, the pace was slow so I got more time to get to the ball and I could dive because of that time based on my assumption. It was a good wicket. If you get a crucial wicket like this, it is good for the team, a plus point, and individually, it increases your personal motivation as well. It also increases confidence that on a difficult pitch, I can take difficult catches.”
A vast majority of Saha’s 27 Test appearances – 20, to be precise – have come in the subcontinent, on pitches similar to the ones he has grown up on. Therefore, while he has been challenged both by the conditions and the craft of R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, he has been to find a way to remain quietly efficient with his technique and his communication with the bowlers concerned. “It is a basic, have been seeing and learning this from childhood, that you have to get up with the bounce of ball,” noted Saha. “But on this track, there was more bounce so I changed a bit to get up a fraction earlier. If you have to adjust to the bounce, you have to get up a little early, and it went well.
“On a turning track, a keeper has to be always ready because the ball can come to you at any time. On this track, the Lankan spinners’ pace was a bit less, hence the ball didn’t go to the keeper as much as it did in the case of Ashwin and Jadeja. We varied the pace well, given the pitch situation. Bowlers do discuss with the keeper about line and how to bowl to different batsmen in a particular manner. We decide together sometimes, and the combination goes well.”
Saha, for whom the Pallekele Test from August 12 will be his 100th first-class game, has been handled with care by the Indian think-tank, which made it clear when he went out through an injury against England at home last year that when he was fully fit, he would automatically walk into the XI. It is precisely that sort of confidence that encourages people to bring out their best, and Saha has responded brilliantly to the team management’s confidence by making two centuries and a fifty in his last seven innings since returning to the side in Hyderabad against Bangladesh.
“If the team, the coach and the captain are saying this (that he is the best keeper around), then it is a big morale boost, because it is not an easy job keeping wickets. Whatever I have done is for the team and I haven’t thought about it actually, that I want to be the best in the world. I am trying to deliver whatever I have learnt since my childhood. It depends on the pitch and how I have to make adjustments, I keep talking with the fielding coach (R) Sridhar as well, how to apply myself.”
Saha is applying himself very nicely already, thank you. As India prepare for plenty of away Tests, his reassuring presence will play a big role in driving the team towards its stated desire of winning matches everywhere – from Cape Town to Kolkata.