Some say he is the best wicketkeeper in the world at the moment. Not the best of the Adam Gilchrist or MS Dhoni school, which puts equal emphasis on work behind the stumps and in front of it, but the more classical one, where the bigger gloves fit the fingers and hands better than the smaller ones.
Not that Wriddhiman Saha can’t bat – 1112 runs from 40 innings at an average of 32.70 in Test matches, with three centuries and five half-centuries, is not the mark of a pushover. Having said that, it’s as a specialist wicketkeeper that Saha has made his name and wants to be recognised.
During a break in India’s Test schedule, which Saha filled up nicely with appearances for Bengal in the Ranji Trophy, he opened up – as much as possible considering he’s the sort who wouldn’t say boo to a goose – to Wisden India about the past, the present and the future, sledging and not sledging, dealing with expectations, his commitment to his state team, and more. Excerpts:
“Ever since I was a youngster, people have praised my wicketkeeping. To be honest, I am not very comfortable with that. I get embarrassed. I just try to play my role as well as I can.”
The Test career is going well, you’ve played 28 now. How do you look back at the journey so far?
From the start, my goal was to play as much as possible. I wanted to play for the Indian team too, but I didn’t get a chance early on. I got one or two Tests after long gaps, when Mahi bhai (MS Dhoni) wasn’t around for some reason or the other. That didn’t affect me much, but the idea was to try and grab the chance whenever it came and get a long run of matches for the Indian team. That has happened, so I am quite happy with my career so far.
Many people say you are the best wicketkeeper in the world right now. How do you look at it?
Firstly, people watching and speaking … it’s their view. Ever since I was a youngster, people have praised my wicketkeeping. To be honest, I am not very comfortable with that. I get embarrassed. I just try to play my role as well as I can, whatever I have learnt since my junior days. My job is to do whatever I can to catch the ball, that’s all. That’s what I focus on. So it’s nice that people are saying good things about me, but I try to focus on my game and not think about who is the best in the world.
Everyone talks about your skills and your concentration, but people who have followed your career have also been amazed at the number of simple chances you spill at times.
Yes, there have been times … I dropped (Ben) Stokes twice off Umesh (Yadav) in the Rajkot Test last year. It happens at times. When a catch comes to the keeper, he has the big gloves, so the expectation is that the catch will be taken. I also expect that. I don’t like it when it happens. But the team has always stood by me. As a team, we accept mistakes as long as the player makes the effort. If it becomes the turning point of the match, of course, we feel bad as individuals, but no one shouts at your or anything. That’s the philosophy we have.
You have mostly done well, but is there a particular performance that you look back at with disappointment?
Especially in Test cricket, it was the Adelaide Test (December 2014). We had a chance to win (chasing 364). Virat (Kohli, who scored 141) had asked me to bat positively, and I did. That was disappointing, because I got out for 13 trying to hit a big one after hitting a six. To return to the dressing room after letting go of a winning position is depressing. So I feel bad at times that when I was batting with Virat, if I had batted for longer and given Virat more company, we could have won that Test. We lost in the end (by 48 runs).
You have been a good batsman for Bengal, you also scored a century on your Ranji Trophy debut, but people thought you were not good enough to score runs at the Test level. How much did that century in the 2014 IPL final help?
Yes. Maybe lots of people didn’t know I could bat. In international cricket, I didn’t score runs initially, and everyone thought I was a good keeper and a bad batsman. The IPL has helped a lot in that respect, because I like playing freely, playing my shots. The IPL helped with that. It must have helped me move into the Indian team also, because people realised that I could score runs and hit fours and sixes.
When we spoke last, you had said that your entire focus was on wicketkeeping, and batting was only an addition, a bonus. Has that point of view changed now that the Indian team expects runs from you?
No, I think I am still mainly a wicketkeeper. I am a wicketkeeper-batsman. From the time I was a child, I thought of myself as a wicketkeeper-batsman, not a batsman-wicketkeeper like a lot of people are. Of course, now it has become compulsory for wicketkeepers to be good batsmen as well, but I think my main job is to be a good wicketkeeper. But I do focus on my batting a lot more than I used to; I am expected to score runs, whether for Bengal or for India, so I spend more time in the nets. Scoring runs has helped. If you score runs, the confidence while keeping wickets also goes up.
“In international cricket, I didn’t score runs initially, and everyone thought I was a good keeper and a bad batsman. The IPL has helped a lot in that respect, because I like playing freely, playing my shots.”
What have the discussions with the coaches and the captain been like – what are the things you have been told about your role?
Initially, I had to wait three-four years for my first two Tests, but since I became a regular member of the team, the coaches have asked me to bat the way I am most comfortable, the way I bat at the first-class level. For Bengal, I will hit all six balls if they are there to be hit. You might think that in Test matches one must be more careful. But I have been told to bat the same way in Test matches. The approach hasn’t changed. Wicketkeeping hasn’t changed at all, of course. With the bat also, I have been asked to feel free, bat according to the situation but the way I think is best. Nothing else.
On the field, we don’t see you talk much, sledge the batsmen – you seem to be a quiet person, almost shy about opening your mouth.
I suppose a lot of this depends on what kind of person you are, what your nature is. Also, some batsmen thrive on it; they get motivated when people sledge them. As for me, I don’t think I have ever sledged, anywhere. It doesn’t come naturally to me. Actually, when I have been with Mahi bhai (Chennai Super Kings), I have seen that he also doesn’t sledge. He talks, as the captain he spoke to the players – the bowlers and the fielders – but he didn’t sledge. I don’t think I have ever seen him talk to individual batsmen. I guess that’s how I am too; I try to do my work quietly.
The other players, especially your captain, look a lot more aggressive. Have you thought about it, have the captain and coach told you anything about it?
We do discuss it in the team meetings – we don’t want to make any batsman comfortable at the crease. If we think it makes sense to sledge a batsman, we do. But we do it as a team. So I have taken part in it once in a way, as part of the team. Sometimes five-six of us get close to a batsman and talk among ourselves and point here and there, but we do it in our language, and the batsman might feel we are talking about him. We do it as a team, and some players do it as individuals too, and it works at times.
How was it when the Australians were here – was there a lot of talk?
Recently … after we lost the first Test, they started the second Test with the upper hand. They had the advantage, so we were more intense. Some of their batsmen get angry when you sledge them. Like Steven Smith. When you get negative with him, he gets angry and starts to play his shots more, which gives us a chance. I joined in as part of the team, and some of that worked.
How assertive are you on the field? When it comes to DRS calls, for example, do you put your foot down at times? Have you been assigned a role when it comes to DRS calls?
We have discussed it in team meetings a lot. When we ask for review, I am behind the stumps and (Ajinkya) Rahane or someone else, maybe Shikhar (Dhawan), is in the slips, and we will give our views. Then there is the bowler, who will have an opinion. And we try to convince the captain. Sometimes all of us are convinced but Virat is not, so we haven’t taken the review. Sometimes he overrules us. It depends on the situation, but I am expected to give my view each time. Sometimes it goes right; sometimes they are close decisions that don’t come off. We have been told to not be 50-50, but tell clearly what we feel. After that it’s the captain’s decision. And if it is the wrong call, no one questions it. It is done for the team. If it’s wrong, it’s wrong, forget about it.
“I don’t think I have ever sledged, anywhere. It doesn’t come naturally to me. Actually, when I have been with Mahi bhai, I have seen that he also doesn’t sledge.”
Some people say that keeping to spin is a lot tougher than keeping to pace. You have kept to some of the best spinners in the world on turning pitches now. R Ashwin, for example. What are your thoughts on this?
Yes, if it is a turning track, keeping to spinners is definitely tough. Sometimes it is tough to keep on placid pitches also. The batsman ends up edging a lot of balls that they think they can hit on flat tracks. But even when it comes to pacers, we have some pacers who can be tough to keep to depending on the conditions. Say in England or South Africa or Sri Lanka, when the breeze picks up, the ball wobbles after crossing the batsman. It happens when (Mohammed) Shami bowls, or when Ishant (Sharma) or Umesh (Yadav) bowl. So it isn’t easy. It might look easy on TV. So keeping it neat and clean is difficult, but that’s my job.
As for Ashwin, yes, he is the toughest to keep to, because he has so many variations. But we have been playing and training together for a while now, so I have an idea of what to expect. The trick is in picking the delivery from the bowlers’ grip, which is what I try to do.
Lots of international players don’t play domestic cricket, but because you play only Test cricket, you get a lot of chances. How do you approach playing for Bengal? Is there a difference?
Since I am from Bengal, the team is very close to my heart. When I am playing for India also, and Bengal is playing, whether Ranji Trophy or one-dayers or whatever, I try to keep track of what’s happening, it’s always there at the back of my mind. So when I am not playing for India, whether it’s a Ranji Trophy match or a one-day match for Bengal, I try to come and play. Like just now, when I had a gap. I try not to miss anything. In fact, if I have a gap and there is a club match, I try to play that too. Basically, if there is a chance to play, I take it. I think that the more I play, the more experience I will have and it will benefit me and my team. If I can serve Bengal, I try to.
Bengal’s season has been a mixed bag so far – what’s your prediction?
We did well in the second game (against Chhattisgarh). Both Shami (seven wickets) and (Ashok) Dinda (ten wickets) were outstanding. We won with a day left. If we can continue the way we played that game, we should definitely play the knockouts. There have been some shortcomings and we have made some mistakes. If we can rectify those, then we can go quite far.
You have been a regular in the IPL, but you haven’t quite made it in the Indian team in limited-overs internationals. How do you look at that?
Our job is to play. If we do well, it goes to the selectors and everything is in their hands. Ever since I was a kid, I have never bothered about selection. It was always the same. I focus on my game and don’t bother about anything else. When I have been given a chance in the IPL, for KKR (Kolkata Knight Riders), Kings XI Punjab or Chennai, I have done my best. As batsman and keeper. Whatever the selectors decide, I accept it. If I get selected, I am happy. If I am not, I just move to the next game.
“We are not thinking about South Africa yet. It’s Sri Lanka first, and that will be tough. We will first have to deal with that challenge before thinking about South Africa.”
Wicketkeepers – a team can only have one. As long as Dhoni was there, you had to wait. Now others have to wait because you are there. How does one deal with that wait?
It’s true that if Mahi bhai was still playing Test cricket, the amount he contributed … As a captain, he has won us so many trophies, and as a player, whatever we say is too little. Maybe I didn’t get a chance because he was around, maybe I got a chance once in way … but that was fair. Now my aim is to play for as long as possible. There are others in the line, and they are doing their best, exactly as I am. I am trying to play for as long as possible, and that’s the challenge. When you are outside, you do your best to put pressure on the person in front of you.
It must be frustrating …
It can be … but just give your best, do your best for the team, win matches for your team. No one is indispensable. So if someone can do well, they will get a chance. So I also have to keep doing well to keep my place. Team comes first. Whoever can contribute more to the team will get a chance.
Rishabh Pant could well be the next big thing in Indian cricket – what are your thoughts about him?
At the Under-19 level, or when he has played domestic cricket or the IPL, he is a positive cricketer. When I have watched him play, he has done well. Especially with the bat, but he keeps well also. The career he has had so far, if he can continue like that then he will get a chance sooner or later. I want him to continue playing the way he has so far. If he can, he can have a good future with the Indian team, whatever the format.
And, finally, what does the immediate future look like? There’s Sri Lanka at home, then off to South Africa …
In terms of cricket, I have never thought about the future, what I want to do after one year or something. I want to serve the Indian team. If I can do well, I will be able to do that. I am also thinking about the Bengal team right now. With the Indian team, it will be back to trying to improve my performances, that’s all. The plan is to do well and not worry about anything else. We are not thinking about South Africa yet. It’s Sri Lanka first, and that will be tough. We will first have to deal with that challenge before thinking about South Africa, and it will be the usual – do what’s best for the team and then for the individual.