Has Wriddhiman Saha's time arrived?
A casual game of Football
It’s early in the month of February, the 8th day to be precise. The year is 2010. South Africa have come to play two Tests in India. They are in the middle of the first one in Nagpur. They have amassed 558 runs in their first innings. India, in response, is reeling at 221-5. Dale Steyn is breathing fire. He is reversing the old ball both ways. He has brought life into a lifeless wicket. Nobody is able to get bat to even touch the ball, not even a little. He’s got two wickets already. And he is in the mood to get a lot more.
At the other end, he is being ably supported by left-arm spinner Paul Harris. Harris has tied up the batsmen from the other end, bowling from over the wicket. It’s a defensive ploy. But it’s working, this negative style of bowling. In the 58th over of the innings, Harris dismisses MS Dhoni. He’s the fifth man out. India is virtually finished at this time.
As Dhoni walks back to the pavilion, he is replaced by a dazed, frail looking wicket-keeper batsman from Bengal. He wears a red bandanna on his head, much like Virender Sehwag. That’s all that seems common between the two. He’s not that confident, he’s not that relaxed, and he’s certainly not that imposing.
He reaches the middle, after what seems like an age. He has a mid-pitch chat with fellow debutant Subramaniam Badrinath, who has, until now, somehow survived Steyn’s onslaught. He then goes to the strikers end to mark his guard. The broadcasters flash his first-class record on the TV screens. It’s there for around 4 seconds. Most people don’t bother with it. All they read is his name, Wriddhiman Saha. He’s not an IPL sensation, this man, that’s why he’s not too popular.
Saha defends his first ball to short leg. He pads the second one. The umpire calls over. Harris takes his cap and goes back to his fielding position. Now, it’s time to face the real stuff. It’s time to face Dale Steyn. Dale Steyn who shatters stumps. Dale Steyn who crushes toes. Dale Steyn who lays ego’s to rest.
Saha is at the non-striker's end. He looks afraid of what is going to happen next. He doesn’t seem to believe he is worthy of representing India in Test Cricket. He probably feels that he doesn’t belong. What happens on the first ball of the 59th over compounds Saha’s fears. Badrinath clips one straight into short mid wicket’s hands. India is six wickets down. Saha is the only remaining batsman. He needs to score some runs, just to make sure he belongs, just to give himself some confidence, just to be ready if another opportunity arrives anytime soon.
Saha wasn’t supposed to be playing this match. It was Rohit Sharma who should have made his debut. A casual game of football was what stopped Rohit Sharma from playing. A casual game of football was what led to Wriddhiman Saha’s debut. Rohit Sharma twisted his ankle, screamed in pain, in frustration, and was then ruled out. As a result, Saha, a specialist wicket-keeper was thrust into Test cricket. It was luck which smiled on him. But he wasn’t ready. He was not ready to be played as a wicket-keeper, he just wasn’t.
Out in the middle, Saha is joined by Harbhajan Singh. Harbhajan defends the first one, takes a single off his next. Saha comes on strike. He looks pale, his mind is not really there. He is very nervous. Dale Steyn have had this effect on batsmen. The third ball Saha faces dismisses him. It’s fast, it’s tailing in. Saha doesn’t react. He doesn’t offer a shot. He doesn’t leave. The ball crashes in to take the off stump. It’s only then that Saha moves his arms as if he was leaving the ball, only because he doesn’t want to look foolish. He exits immediately. It’s almost as if he doesn’t want to be there. He walks back looking even more dazed, even frailer than before. Those were his five minutes of hell. On a day when he fulfilled his lifelong dream. Nothing could’ve have been worse than that.
Saha scratched around for 36 in the second innings. He played and missed on many occasions, he offered half chances, he almost ran himself out and he was dropped twice. India lost by an innings. Saha really should not have been selected this early. His confidence took a major dent. After this experience, Saha, for quite some time, didn’t score any runs in first-class cricket. He didn’t play another Test for two years. He went on every tour, every single one of them, but didn’t get a game.
It’s a strange thing, this what we call an opportunity. When Saha was not ready for Test cricket, he got an opportunity in the team.
Luck smiles again
It took him some time to get ready, to fully prepare himself for Test Cricket. Once he was prepared, that opportunity didn’t come. It took two years for the next opportunity to come. Two long, hard, full of struggle and first-class runs kind of years. It presented itself at the Adelaide test in January 2012, the last in a series of four.
MS Dhoni was penalized for India’s slow over-rate in the third test, he had to sit out the fourth one. The series was lost, so was India’s pride. A 4-0 loss was all India wanted to prevent. Apart from this, the Adelaide match didn’t matter too much. Nor did the fact that Saha was playing his second game. He had a big partnership with Virat Kohli. He held one end up while Kohli made runs. He played well. This time, he wanted to be out in the middle. This time, he was actually enjoying the experience of playing Test cricket.
The horror of Nagpur 2010 was behind him. People remember this as the match in which Virat Kohli scored his first test century. They don’t remember that Saha made a crucial 35, that Saha helped Kohli score his century. Like his innings, Saha fell off the radar after that. India went on tours without reserve wicket keepers. When they did, Saha didn’t even get to play warm up games. It was nearly four years before he played next test, in December 2014, at the Adelaide Oval again.
In between his second and third Test, Saha scored a lot of runs. He scored runs in first-class cricket. He scored runs in List A cricket. He scored runs in T20 cricket. In 2014, he also became an IPL sensation. He scored quick runs, filled with boundaries and sixes. People now knew who Wriddhiman Saha was. His best moment as a batsman also came in an IPL final, the one in season seven. He scored a hundred, against all odds, against Sunil Narine, against Morne Morkel, in an IPL final. This guy can bat, everyone said. As if a first class average of 44 couldn’t prove it.
Before India departed for Australia, it was announced that MS Dhoni was injured, that he would not be playing the first match. Wriddhiman Saha went, with Naman Ojha as his back up. Naman Ojha was in the form of his life. He had scored more first-class runs in the previous two seasons than anyone else had. His average was in the mid 70’s. He had gone on the ‘A’ tour to Australia earlier that year. He had scored two centuries and a double century in three innings. Many wanted Naman Ojha to play. He probably should have played based on his form.
But Virat Kohli played Saha. It was not because he was a better batsman, he was not. Yes, Saha had scored runs, but it was not even close to what Ojha had scored. Saha played because he was the best wicket-keeper the country had, Saha deserved a chance before Ojha did.
Saha didn’t have a good game, he didn’t score runs, he missed stumpings, he dropped chances. It was almost as if the horror of Nagpur was back. Saha has these moments, where he just doesn’t know what’s happening. A sort of a brain freeze.
Saha’s temperament came under question in this match. It was partly because of the dropped catches and the missed stumpings. But it was mostly because of the way he batted in India’s second innings. India were close to one of their best test victories. Chasing 364, they were just 87 runs away from the target when Saha came to bat. Virat Kohli was batting like few ever have that day. He had reached his century. Just like the last time these two batted together, Kohli needed Saha to hold one end up while he scored the runs and took India to victory.
This time Saha didn’t play according to plan. He had a brain freeze. It came after he had played six balls. He was batting on three when Nathan Lyon came on to bowl the 79th over of the innings. For the first ball, Saha came down and smashed Lyon for six over long on. Next ball, he swept powerfully for a four to the square leg boundary. It was as if the IPL batsman in him had come out. It looked good while it lasted, this super attacking mode of batting. But it wasn’t destined to last.
Saha was slogging blindly, unnecessarily. He was not playing his game, on the fourth ball, he charged again, Lyon slowed it up, Saha missed and was bowled. Saha left Kohli alone when India needed him the most. Just like Nagpur, he exited quickly. Just like Nagpur, maybe he didn’t want to be there. There’s something that got to him. Perhaps the fact that he desperately wanted to prove wrong, the people who felt Ojha should play. Perhaps the fact that he wanted to be a hero, for he didn’t know when his next chance would come.
Breaking the Jinx
That next chance came in the last test of the series. MS Dhoni had announced his retirement from Test cricket. His time was up. Ojha had been sent home after the first match, once Dhoni regained full fitness. Had he been there, Saha may not have played.
But, just for the second time in his career, luck smiled on Saha. He played decently in Sydney. He scored a gritty 35 and took a couple of sharp chances. He felt at home, he didn’t have a brain freeze this time. He was now India’s premier wicket-keeper, at least on this tour.
But there is work to be done. Wriddhiman Saha, the wicket-keeper, is probably the best India has had since Syed Kirmani in the 1980’s. It’s Wriddhiman Saha, the batsman and Wriddhiman Saha, the Test match cricketer who needs improvement. He has to tighten his technique, he has to believe in himself, he has to strengthen his temperament, he needs to do all of that if he is to continue as India’s first choice wicket keeper.
Sri Lankan tour: a chance to redeem
The series in Sri Lanka is his first real opportunity, first real examination as India’s Test match wicket-keeper. Unless he gets injured, he’s going to play all three matches. India hasn’t taken a reserve keeper with them. The selectors have shown immense faith in Saha. It’s his chance to repay that faith. It’s his chance to ensure that Virat Kohli doesn’t regret playing him at number six. He has started well, scoring a well compiled 60 in Galle. He will need to score a lot more of these runs, day in day out.
He can’t afford to relax. India now has an abundance of wicket-keepers at their disposal. They have Ojha, whose run-scoring hasn’t diminished. They have Sanju Samson, who has just made his debut in the T20 format. And they have the old hands in the form of Dinesh Karthik and Parthiv Patel, both of them are always so close to international comebacks.
For Saha, this series is his chance to shut the door on all of them, the way MS Dhoni did in 2005. This series is his chance to score runs on difficult wickets. This series is his chance to prove that his temperament is fit for Test cricket. This series is his chance to make India believe in him. This series is the chance to become what he always wanted to, India’s first-choice wicket-keeper batsman. The series in Sri Lanka is his chance to show that Wriddhiman Saha’s time has arrived. It probably has.