A little under two months back, in mid-January, Wriddhiman Saha was on the comeback trail. He had missed the final three Tests against England in November-December with a hamstring tendon injury, and in his absence, Parthiv Patel had grabbed his chances in his first Test appearances for more than eight years.
In a show of faith, MSK Prasad, the chairman of the national selection panel, made it clear that Saha’s form was not under scrutiny. The selectors were keen to ascertain his return to full fitness, more than seeing how he kept or how many he made with the bat.
Saha didn’t seem to mind what it was they were looking for, though he must have been kicking himself at an opportunity lost when he was dismissed without scoring in the first innings of the Irani Cup 2016-17. When he came out to bat in the second with Gujarat, the Ranji Trophy champions, having set Rest of India a massive 369 for victory, his team was in deep trouble at 63 for 4.
Fortunately for Saha, the man he joined in the middle answered to the name of Cheteshwar Pujara, using the time between the England series and the remaining five home Tests to get some meaningful batting practice. For the next five-and-a-half hours, Gujarat endured a shellacking even as Pujara and Saha dug in to muscle their team home. By the time the winning runs were brought up, Pujara was on a typically patient 116, and Saha had hammered 203 from just 272 deliveries in an unfinished stand worth 306.
The situation was entirely different at the JSCA International Stadium on Saturday (March 18) when Saha walked out to join Pujara late on the third evening of the third Test. Australia had just struck twice in quick succession, and India were 123 behind with four wickets standing. Another blow, and India would have been reeling. So Pujara and Saha did what they do best – engage in another soul-stirring association, this bearing no resemblance to their four-an-over alliance in Mumbai and statistically inferior to the staggering 306 then, but worth plenty more given the context.
It wasn’t as if their association wasn’t considerable on its own – an Indian record 199, in five-and-a-quarter hours and off 466 deliveries. Painfully slow, if you take it in isolation, but this stand was never going to be about the rate of scoring.
Right from the off, it was clear that there was a high level of comfort between two of the least hyped Indian cricketers. Neither man is a particularly in-the-face presence, preferring to let his deeds do the talking. But they weren’t short of communication in the middle, when it came to exchanging notes about what the bowlers and how the pitch was behaving to their calling, from their instinctive responses to each other to the invaluable inputs on seeking DRS assistance.
Pujara belongs to the old school that believes in first grinding the opposition out, wearing them down mentally, and then getting on the bike and speeding away. Saha, a top-order batsman for Bengal even though he bats at No. 6 and No. 7 for India, is by nature a free-stroking, attacking willow-wielder with the cheekiness in strokeplay that seems inborn in wicketkeepers. While the situation was ideal for Pujara to play in his own way, it required Saha to bat out of character. And he did so in exemplary fashion on his way to a third Test hundred overall, and a second in his last four matches.
At various times, the pair sought inspiration from its Irani Cup exploits. This was a different day, a different opposition, a different arena and a different situation, but the cause was the same as it had been the other day – to join hands and take the team home. If ‘home’ then was a target of 379, then home now was to get to Australia’s 451, first, and then get as far beyond it as was possible.
It wouldn’t be easy, but then again, very little is in Test cricket. Especially on the third evening, with their tails up and Pat Cummins letting it fly, Saha in particular was put through a searching examination. He handled the short balls beautifully, his low centre of gravity allowing him to sway out of the line at the last minute without losing balance or poise.
From a mindset perspective, this was Saha’s biggest challenge – to put his natural attacking instincts to bed for large pockets and to grind and graft and accumulate rather than biff and bash and amass. The challenge was met head-on. If the Brabourne double contained 26 fours and six sixes, then his priceless 117 here in the Jharkhand capital had just eight fours and a six. It was an exercise in terrific restraint, a knock that showcased his situational awareness and his adaptability as much as his faith in his partner and his trust in his own game plans.
“In that game, Puji (Pujara) backed me and encouraged me to play my shots and be positive,” said Saha, picking his words with the same studied concentration as he picked Australia’s bowlers off, on Sunday. “The same approach was there today as well. Even when I defended, it did it in a positive sense and when I played my shots, that was also in a positive vein. Puji backed me, hence it was possible to have a good partnership.”
It wasn’t Laxman-Dravid for elegance and class – forget about situation – but it didn’t have to be. In any case, there aren’t too many other pairs that can bat as brilliantly for as long as VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid did against the same opposition in Kolkata 16 years back.
Saha, though, did concede that, having been unseparated till tea, the thought of coming through the fourth day unconquered, just as Laxman and Dravid were at Eden Gardens, did flit through his mind.
“It was there at the back of the mind, yes,” smiled Saha. “The way Puji was batting, you didn’t ever feel that a wicket would fall at one end, I was feeling sorry for the bowlers. We obviously had that 300-run partnership in the Irani, so that sort of reaffirmed our belief that we could bat together for long periods.”
There was no outlandish celebration at the passing of individual milestones, no helmets whipped off and expletives mouthed. If anything, the most pumped-up heralding of a number was when India reached 400 – Pujara almost ran back from the non-striker’s end to shake hands and then gently embrace his mate. Team before self, as they say.
That said, there was a warm acknowledgment of each other’s achievements, too. Pujara drew Saha into a long, heartfelt hug after the ‘keeper reached his 100, Saha returned the compliment a little later when Pujara got to 200. To the Australians, this might have seemed the unlikeliest pair to turn their tour upside down, but maybe they hadn’t brushed up on their Irani Cup history.
“We communicate (well) with each other, we have played a lot of cricket together,” offered Pujara. “We know each other really well, even off the field. We spend a lot of time together, so the understanding is there.”
Having spent a lot more time together on the field than they would have liked, the Australians too will have understood them a lot better now.