Why Wriddhiman Saha is the deserved successor to MS Dhoni
“There was this young kid, thin and short, barely 13 or 14, who came out to bat. You knew that he wasn't exceptional or flamboyant. He played in the ‘V’ mostly, down the ground and knew how to leave the ball,” narrated Jolly Sarkar. Sarkar, 75, a former first-class player, knows a thing or two about cricket, especially about spotting talent. It was during his tenure as selector of Bengal's junior teams that the likes of Manoj Tiwary and Ashok Dinda were unearthed. But for Sarkar, the young kid he discovered in the small town of Siliguri figures amongst his brightest finds. “He could keep superbly. He had a tidy technique and one could make out that he was very agile. My fellow selector and I decided to lap him up and present him to Bengal cricket,” said Sarkar, with a hint of pride in his eyes.
Wriddhiman Saha is the most unnoticed cricketer you will ever come across. A diminutive character who might walk past you on the streets, or travel with you on the metro, without you even having an inkling that you just brushed your shoulders with an Indian Test cricketer. He keeps to himself, stays away from the limelight and seldom complains. For quite some time now, he has been the country’s most sound gloveman but has only played 12 international games since making his debut in 2010.
With MS Dhoni's sudden Test retirement, the doors have finally opened for an exceptionally talented cricketer who has made himself worthy of this opportunity, by virtue of his perseverance and patience.
His entry into first-class cricket was unexpected. Bengal's regular wicketkeeper and senior pro, Deep Dasgupta, had a good two-three years ahead of him, if not more. Bengal cricket was at its peak after a gap of many years, and change was the last thing it needed. But Dasgupta moved to the greener pastures of the Zee Group-led initiative, the now defunct Indian Cricket League.
One of domestic cricket’s consistent performers
Saha was drafted in and made his debut against Hyderabad in November 2007. In a match that will forever be remembered for Manoj Tiwary's 203, Saha scored a valiant 111 not out to take Bengal to an imposing 461. He struck 15 fours and a six, and stitched a 177-run partnership with Tiwary. He never put a foot wrong after that day.
Saha has been Bengal and East Zone's most consistent player for many years now. Match after match, he saves runs with his tight glovework, acrobatically flies around to spare the blushes of many erratic bowlers and pulls off some blinders.
With the bat, he comes lower down the order and pulls off some smart chases or stabilizes the innings after batting collapses. He is the quintessential team man, doing the tidying work for the rest. A team man who doesn't bother looking over his shoulders, someone who isn't desperate to see himself receive the top accolades.
For him, the team comes first, and he has even put aside his captaincy ambitions to serve the team well. He only cares about playing the sport he loves the most and is content with what he has achieved.
Saha's first-class and List A average is in the mid-forties, and he has a T20 strike rate of 130. He tamed Sunil Narine & co. in the IPL final last season and made a mess out of Dale Steyn‘s bowling figures a few matches before that. But despite all that, you feel sorry for him. A good part of his playing career, after all, was spent in competing for a spot in the Indian line-up that was occupied by the Indian captain.
Understudy to MS Dhoni
Saha made his way into the Test squad in 2010, against South Africa. He was supposed to be Dhoni's understudy and had some impressive performances in domestic cricket to back his selection. He had also performed well in the A tours abroad and had also represented the Board President's XI in a game against the Sri Lankans. Due to a freak last moment injury to Rohit Sharma, Saha made his Test debut at Nagpur as a specialist batsman. For a match that should have been remembered for his gritty second innings knock of 30-odd against the most potent fast bowling in recent times, it became remembered for India's biggest selection fiasco.
Under intense pressure from the media and the cricketing public, the Indian selectors hastily dropped Saha from the squad altogether, replacing him with Dinesh Karthik. In the face of what could have severely damaged his morale and his career, Saha was unflappable. He quietly went back to domestic cricket and started scoring runs again.
Just before IPL 2011's open auctions, Saha wasn't retained by his previous franchise, the Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR). He had had a decent IPL outing over the three years, peppered with some impressive knocks against good bowling line-ups. As a result of Kolkata's decision to release most of its players, Saha headed back to the auction pool and was picked up by the Chennai franchise. His blessed luck, the franchise which was being led by the Indian captain himself.
The next three years with Chennai were quite identical to Saha's first four years in international cricket. He travelled with the team, played the odd game and mostly served drinks. In between all of that, the Indian selectors were getting growingly tired about the absence of genuine wicketkeepers in the country.
The logic was simple. If your best wicketkeeper-batsman and captain couldn't take the field, the soundest wicketkeeper who could also bat needed to be around. Karthik and Parthiv Patel weren't at their best behind the stumps and Saha was the go-to man.
Starting 2010, Saha has been India's primary backup keeper, touring all around the world with the Indian team. He went twice to South Africa, England, and Australia. He also toured New Zealand with the Indian team in 2014 and donned the keeper's gloves for the one-day series against Bangladesh in June and Sri Lanka in November. Between December 2010 and now, India have played 27 Test matches abroad (where usually a backup keeper is required) and Saha has just figured in two of those games, the third being his debut in Nagpur.
Saha has made all the right noises with whatever little he has been able to do till now. He has scored well in practice games during tours and contributed handily in the Tests. In only his second Test, he ably tackled a pace battery that included Peter Siddle, Ben Hilfenhaus, and Ryan Harris. He came in to bat at 111/5, and resolutely stuck around for more than two hours to score a defiant 35 in an 114-run stand with Virat Kohli. Most importantly, Saha's stubborn innings helped Virat Kohli to his first Test century.
Three years later, Saha played his third Test, once again at Adelaide and looked terrifically at ease against some fierce fast bowling. He swayed away from Johnson's fire-spitters consistently and looked comfortable against Nathan Lyon's turn and bounce, playing the offie off the back foot while others struggled on a deteriorating wicket.
While Saha did get a bad decision in the first innings, where he looked all set to score a fifty at least, he got out in the second innings playing an ambitious albeit not thought-out shot, quite unlike his natural self. That too after he imposed himself on Lyon, hitting him for a six and four off consecutive deliveries.
Time for Saha to grab hold of his opportunity
Among the fans, Saha will remain an unpopular choice to replace Dhoni, especially considering the hype surrounding a more flamboyant Naman Ojha and the immensely talented and backed Sanju Samson. But Saha epitomizes the 'khadoos' cricketer that Ravi Shastri often talks about.
He knows his strengths well, is technically strong and is unflappable at the sight of pressure and criticism. Where else will you find a cricketer who demolishes a bowling attack in the finals of Indian cricket's marquee event, becomes the cynosure of all eyes and yet, in an interview, goes on to say how he rates his non-glamorous Test innings of 30-odd on a foreign soil much higher than a flamboyant and dominating hundred in T20 cricket.
Welcome aboard Wriddhiman Saha, it's over to you now.