The short-ball test that Wriddhiman Saha came through with flying colours was one of the more impressive facets of India’s batting in the third Test against Australia.
Pat Cummins, mainly, and Josh Hazlewood tried their best to rough up the little wicketkeeper, but Saha wasn’t taking a backward step. Having honed his ‘leaving’ skills in the nets, he was more than up to the task, never taking his eyes off the ball and swaying his upper body out of the way even when the ball followed him.
KL Rahul and R Ashwin had both been dismissed by lifters from Cummins, and while Saha had a natural advantage because his height – or the lack of it – meant his hands would be much lower, it didn’t take anything away from a five-and-a-half-hour epic that, in Cheteshwar Pujara’s company, has put India in a position from where they can look to force the issue on Monday’s (March 20) final day.
“I have not too many changes, but I am backing myself a lot more. My go-to shots, the sweep and the shot over the top stepping out, I am playing them with a lot more assurance. Initially, when I came into the Test team, I played those shots hesitantly but now I am 100% confident. The team, the captain, the coaches, everyone is fully behind me and that is good for me.”
“I practice a lot in the nets against the short ball. I work with the batting coach (Sanjay Bangar), Raghu (the throw-down expert), Anil bhai (Kumble, the head coach), the fast bowlers – my strength is to let the short ball go, that’s what I work on.”
Saha made his Test debut as a specialist batsman against South Africa in February 2010 due to a series of freak mishaps culminating in Rohit Sharma denying himself a debut by picking up an injury on the morning of the game. He batted at No. 7 then, behind Mahendra Singh Dhoni, and atoned for a five-ball duck in the first innings when he found Dale Steyn too hot to handle by making a feisty 36 in the second.
That was to be Saha’s last Test for two years before an over-rate offence led to Dhoni being suspended for a game, giving Saha a second chance in Adelaide in early 2012. It would be another two years after that, when Dhoni bid adieu to Test cricket, that Saha automatically became the first-choice stumper.
Saha’s glovework has never been in question, but his batting has come on by leaps and bounds, particularly starting from the tour of the Caribbean last July-August. All his three Test hundreds have come since then – including Sunday’s 117 – and he won a match off his own bat against New Zealand with twin unbeaten half-tons on a difficult home track at Eden Gardens that fetched him the Man of the Match award.
“I have not too many changes, but I am backing myself a lot more,” offered Saha. “My go-to shots, the sweep and the shot over the top stepping out, I am playing them with a lot more assurance. Initially, when I came into the Test team, I played those shots hesitantly but now I am 100% confident. The team, the captain, the coaches, everyone is fully behind me and that is good for me.”
Saha shares a wonderful rapport with Pujara, and that was obvious during their game-changing 199-run partnership with India having their back to the wall. “Puji shows a lot of patience in domestic cricket – regularly makes 200s and 300s. Given that backdrop, his patience is always on top. The way he showed patience here even as wickets were falling at the other end after short partnerships … he was trying to curtail his shots and have as long a partnership as possible.
“We needed a partnership, and we built it slowly. Puji made a double and I made a hundred, so this hundred has to be the best of my three centuries so far. When I went into bat, Puji said let’s aim for as long a partnership as possible, take it 10-15 runs at a time. I tried to do that, back my strengths, avail of the loose balls and respect the good balls.”
There were a few words exchanged between Hazlewood and the two batsmen. “During the game, this happens from time to time,” said Saha, without making a big fuss. “All Pujara told him was ‘Look at the scoreboard’. Pujara was on 180-plus when this happened. He (Hazlewood) told me something and I also told him to just go and bowl, nothing more than that.”
As the Pujara-Saha show pitched tent, the pitch appeared placid as placid can be, but in the 7.2 overs to close that Australia faced, it looked as if every delivery would produce a wicket with the ball spitting, fizzing and bouncing, and Ravindra Jadeja did pick up two wickets in the 20 deliveries he bowled. “There was a bit of pressure on them because it was towards the end of the day’s play and they were focussed on survival,” conceded Saha. “When we batted, we played well but they also bowled well. We batted more than 200 overs, we were availing the loose balls and respecting the good balls. If we bowl tomorrow like we did in these eight overs, consistently in the right areas, then hopefully tomorrow will be a good day for us.
“I would like for all of our bowlers to be effective. (R) Ashwin also bowled well to the left-handers today. Some balls are going straight, some are turning a bit. And Jaddu’s two dismissals – one turned from the rough, one from the middle. He is bowling really well. I think everyone will be effective, the pacers too have been bowling well in all the innings.”