Life throws big surprises. Isn’t it? Who would have thought the terms ‘Wriddhiman Saha’ and ‘Controversy’ would find addresses in the same headline.
‘Team-man’, ‘incredible wicketkeeper’ and the ‘Ypu-gate’. The sum of these three phrases form a chunk of Saha’s legacy, but there’s much more to it.
From a talented teenager from the foothills of the Himalayas (Siliguri) hustling to find his feet in the Kolkata dinginess to emerging as one of the finest wicketkeepers in the modern sport, Saha has been an integral part of the golden age of Indian Test cricket.
“He’s a phenomenal wicketkeeper, no doubt. But his batting is highly underrated. He’s brilliant,” said Kumar Sangakkara on Saha’s batting during the IPL 2020.
Let’s start with the most underrated part – his batting.
Rishabh Pant has spoilt a generation. They will grow up believing that bludgeoning hundreds for an Asian wicketkeeper-batter in alien conditions is a cakewalk. It’s absolutely not. In a 28-Test career, Pant has slammed three tons outside the subcontinent and came very close two more times. No other Asian wicketkeeper has a century in all three nations: England, Australia and South Africa.
It’s no surprise that Pant’s rise played a role in dwindling opportunities for Saha that ultimately pushed the latter out of the national Test side. At 37, being the second-choice isn’t easy. And the management’s decision is understandable. I will come to that.
Before Pant, there were only three centuries by Indian keepers outside Asia.
In 2016, India were five down for 126 on the first morning of the Test when Saha joined Ravichandran Ashwin on a lively Gros Islet surface. It was his 14th Test in a career spread across six years, and he eventually managed a ton. It was the first hundred by an Indian wicketkeeper outside the subcontinent in 14 years.
Ajay Ratra had achieved the feat on a belter at St. John’s in 2002. And before that, Vijay Manjrekar got a 118 in Kingston, in 1953. Saha’s knock was only the third Test hundred scored by an Indian wicketkeeper outside the subcontinent and fourth outside home.
Remember, a gentleman named MS Dhoni kept wickets for India in nine of those 14 years between the feats of Ratra and Saha. His only hundred outside India was the remarkable effort in Faisalabad.
Saha’s knock at Gros Islet played a decisive role in India’s series win in 2016. It was the first time India had won more than a Test in a series in the West Indies.
Not a lot has been written about Saha’s batting technique. Still, his ability to handle short-pitched bowling found abode in the poetic words of my ex-colleague, Kaustubh Mayekar, in an article for CricketCountry after his maiden hundred:
“If truth be told, barring Murali Vijay, no one from the current Indian team could tackle bouncers with comfort and ease. Till Saha arrived, that is. Saha has taken it to the next level. Yes, he has surpassed even the schematic Vijay.
“There are many who watch the ball closely and leave it at the last moment. We have seen Rahul Dravid arch back, Sachin Tendulkar duck under, Ricky Ponting hook with perfection, Dhoni take blows; there are more examples. Saha actually does all these, and to perfection. His batting at St Lucia was, in a way, a tutorial on how to play short balls.
“Let us dissect his technique. He is armed with a simple stance, something the coaches teach on the first day of practice. He places the bat behind his back-foot, keeps it absolutely straight (with no angle whatsoever), partially leans forward, makes his body still and plays the ball without losing his balance. Of all these attributes, playing the ball without losing his balance is something that keeps him ahead of his contemporaries. Also read: Forget Pujara, why did India leave out Vijay against West Indies?
“The reasons Virender Sehwag succeeded were a straight back-lift and a still head. Though cricket experts emphasised on his lack of footwork, his bat angle helped him bludgeon the bowlers. Nonetheless, like Sehwag, Saha keeps his head still, giving him extra time to read the ball.
“But, why should one not bring the bat from an angle?
“The answer is simple. It affects the hand-eye coordination. Look at Saha. With straight bat, his hands are in a better position to drop his wrist. And if it darts in, he can arch his back as much as he can and let the ball go past his chest. Of course, the reflex and fitness of a wicketkeeper help.
“Saha’s application in his maiden Test hundred was flawless. With the pitch having an even covering of grass and equally good carry, falling prey to short balls was inevitable. India’s innings had unveiled exactly that way. While Shikhar Dhawan gloved it to the wicketkeeper, Virat Kohli failed to tackle an in-seaming bouncer, edging to slip.”
Saha scored two more Test centuries and made several valuable contributions with the bat down the order. The most recent being the 61 not out with a stiff neck in the Kanpur Test that bailed India out of a deep crisis.
Another term used by many to describe him is “team-man”. Batting with the tail or batting with declaration around the corner, Saha would care little about batting averages.
Many seasons back, in 2007-08 Ranji Trophy, Saha, then 24, ended his long wait for the Bengal cap with a century on First-Class debut. It took an ICL for Deep Dasgupta to vacate his place, and Saha grabbed it. By then, Dhoni was already a phenomenon in international cricket. Though Dinesh Karthik and Parthiv Patel played Tests before him, Dhoni had set off to etch a legacy of his own. Saha’s wait for the national cap had to be longer. We will revisit the ‘wait’ part of Saha’s career.
Saha, the batter, isn’t highly spoken of. As fate would have it, he made his Test debut as a specialist batter at No.7. With VVS Laxman falling sick before the Nagpur Test of 2009-10, India’s Test Cap No. 263 was ready for Rohit Sharma. A last-minute injury to the youngster ensured the cap found Saha’s scalp.
A reserve wicketkeeper in the newly-ranked No.1 Test side, in no time, Saha, who was practising against the net bowlers, found himself amid the fury of Dale Steyn’s spell of a lifetime. Falling to a third-ball duck on his Test debut, he battled for two and a half hours for a 36 to delay the South African victory.
Not that Saha cemented his place in the side, but Rohit had to wait another three and a half years to win a Test cap. Coincidentally, the man Saha replaced as a Test debutant will debut as India’s new Test captain next month. And in all likelihood, the Bengal stumper won’t play a Test under him.
Anyway, now to the perceptions. Weren’t Parthiv, Karthik and even Naman Ojha better willow-wielders? Does an average barely touching 30 in Tests justify Saha’s batting capabilities? Not quite, especially if your career is sandwiched between Dhoni and Pant.
Let’s look at the Test careers
|Parthiv Patel (2002-18)||25||934||71||31.1||48.5||0||6|
|Dinesh Karthik (2004-18)||26||1,025||129||25||49.3||1||7|
|Wriddhiman Saha (2010-21)||40||1,353||117||29.4||45.5||3||6|
|Rishabh Pant (2018-22)||28||1,735||159*||39.4||67.5||4||7|
In First-Class Cricket
|Parthiv Patel (2002-18)||194||11,240||206||43.4||59.8||27||62|
|Dinesh Karthik (2002-20)||167||9,620||213||40.9||58.7||28||43|
|Wriddhiman Saha (2007-21)||122||6,423||203*||42||48.1||13||38|
|Naman Ojha (2000-20)||146||9,753||219*||41.7||55+||22||55|
|Rishabh Pant (2015-22)||52||3,587||308||46.6||80||9||15|
In List A Cricket
|Parthiv Patel (2001-19)||193||5,172||119||29.7||84.5||3||35|
|Dinesh Karthik (2002-21)||251||7,349||154*||39.9||92||12||39|
|Wriddhiman Saha (2007-19)||102||2,762||116||42.5||82.7||2||19|
|Naman Ojha (2001-19)||143||4,278||167||32.7||80+||9||23|
|Rishabh Pant (2015-22)||60||1,633||135||31.4||105.6||1||11|
|Parthiv Patel (2005-19)||204||4,300||82||22.9||123.8||0||23|
|Dinesh Karthik (2006-21)||327||7,349||97*||27.2||133.3||0||30|
|Wriddhiman Saha (2007-21)||209||3,650||129||24.7||130.2||2||18|
|Naman Ojha (2007-19)||182||2,972||94*||20.9||118.9||0||15|
|Rishabh Pant (2016-22)||142||3,710||128*||33.1||145.8||2||22|
Most of Saha’s heroic outings in First-Class cricket came for Bengal, a side that didn’t have too many dependable batters except Manoj Tiwary. Batting on testing surfaces in winter mornings in Eden Gardens or Kalyani, Saha would use his wicketkeeping experience to gauge the pitch behaviour and adjust footwork to often cut down on his natural stroke-making instincts to produce invaluable knocks for his state.
One of my favourite knocks in domestic cricket has to be the Saha double ton in the Irani Trophy of 2016-17. An injury had forced Saha out of the national side, and Parthiv made an impressive return to the Test side after eight years. A few weeks later, the Parthiv-led Ranji Champions Gujarat faced the Rest of India (RoI) for the Irani Trophy.
Gujarat managed a 132-run first-innings lead. RoI were set a target of 379 and were 63 for four. Saha joined Cheteshwar Pujara, and the duo added 316, scoring at almost four an over. Pujara batted almost seven hours for his 116 not out. In stark contrast, Saha went berserk and slammed an unbeaten 272-ball 203. RoI cruised to an unlikely win. He returned to the national and immediately scored another ton.
The surface-level stats tell us that in an ideal world, Saha’s white-ball international outings for India shouldn’t have been limited to just nine ODIs. Pant and Saha have two T20 hundreds (Dhoni has none), both have played an IPL final each, but Saha is the first cricketer and the only Indian to have scored a century in an IPL final.
Even his IPL moment wasn’t bereft of the ‘wait’. He showed enough promise for Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) in the first three seasons before being nabbed by the Chennai Super Kings (CSK) in 2011. In the next three seasons, he was once again limited to being a reserve for Dhoni, playing only 14 IPL matches between 2011 and 2014 before he emerged as a star for Kings XI Punjab (now Punjab Kings).
By now, it’s also established that Pant is a rare phenomenon. So is Saha. As Sid Monga writes in his article for ESPNCricinfo: “It will remain a tribute to Saha that he could keep a batter of Pant’s ability out on turning tracks on the sheer weight of his glovework.”
The quintessential good boy of Indian cricket, the seemingly unemotive Saha, hasn’t been a headline material in the age of stubbles, muscles, and tattoos. More has been spoken and written about him this week than his entire career. But whenever he has been a subject of the discussion, his near-perfect wicketkeeping skills has found the most mentions.
From Virat Kohli to Philo Wallace to Harbhajan Singh, many have labelled Saha as the best glovesman in the world. More recently, even the men he competed the most against termed him the best wicketkeeper. Yes, Parthiv and Karthik. That stands as the true testimony to Saha’s legacy, and no wonder why Ashwin and Jadeja in the past have supported having him keep against them in India.
Saha is among the rare keeper-batters to have received a Player of the Match award as an all-rounder. His twin fifties and exceptional work behind the stumps won him the award in the 2016 Kolkata Test against New Zealand.
It won’t be a surprise if we see him opening the batting with Jason Roy for Gujarat Titans in the IPL 2022.
Now the other chapter of the Saha story.
Having seen a fellow Bengalis rise through the rank, Sourav Ganguly has always been vocal with his support for Saha. A decade back, Sourav Ganguly, Saha’s former Bengal and KKR skipper, lauded the latter’s wicketkeeping technique but complained that the stumper was unusually quiet.
Inside the team, he’s one of the most liked characters. Saha’s teammates talk about the calmness, composure, lack of frustration and nicety around him. In a massive plot twist, Saha’s Twitter and interviews have stirred a new storm in Indian cricket.
Kohli lost his ODI captaincy in December, and a month later, he decided to relinquish Test leadership amid several speculations. For the upcoming Tests against Sri Lanka, Saha lost his place in the Test squad. But the national selectors have dropped the more illustrious names – Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane and Ishant Sharma.
But it’s not the heavyweights that have found themselves at the centre of the raging issues. There are two components to it:
a. Saha claims in the interviews where he revealed his conversations with head coach Rahul Dravid, chief selector Chetan Sharma and also Ganguly’s WhatsApp message.
b. The tweet with the WhatsApp screenshot on his conversation with a “renowned” journalist, who threatened him.
The two contrasting issues have been wrongly mixed as a cocktail and narrated by sections of media. But Saha’s latest stance on not revealing the journalist’s name gives a meeting point to the two different issues.
Saha has every right to feel gutted. Athletes start their training very young. By the time they near the mid-points of their lives, they know the days at the top are numbered. The mind understandably refuses to believe it and is at war with the body’s limitations. But it’s the same sport that they have done all their lives. Being told to retire can break you at that moment.
From Dravid’s point of view, he offered clarity – something that Indian cricket has always lacked. With hardly enough Tests this year and pushing 38, it makes sense for the team management to groom a younger wicketkeeper. Filling in for Saha at Kanpur, KS Bharat gave a good account of himself.
Saha wasn’t the first cricketer to be dropped, he won’t be the last either. But he’s probably among the handfuls who have received clarity from management regarding his position.
As the Chairman of Selector, Chetan Sharma took the conversation ahead and told the stumper that the door was closed. However, he asked him to play the Ranji Trophy. A couple of big scores, an injury to Pant, and you never know what would follow next.
In the capacity of being the BCCI chief, Ganguly had no business in assuring Saha, a place in the squad. He could have ended with a congratulatory note after the latter’s Kanpur heroics. But given the equation between the two men, we don’t know in what context the message was shared.
This also beats the other anti-Ganguly version floating around that he’s muscle-flexing things at the top. If that were the case, Saha wouldn’t be dropped.
From Ganguly to Chetan Sharma to Dravid, Saha revealed who said what to him. Without getting into the morality part, the very quiet Saha, of all men, wasn’t expected to go public, revealing private conversations between him and some of the most prolific names in Indian cricket.
Saha may counter his version that he was only speaking the truth that was asked. The tones did indicate taking digs.
Now coming to the other part. Journalism – sports or otherwise – has witnessed a severe fall in standards, even in terms of ethics. Saha was courageous enough to expose its dark side by sharing a threat he received from a ‘respected journalist’ for not obliging to give him an interview. He didn’t name the scribe. Without mincing any words, the journalist went: “I don’t take insults kindly – and I will remember this.”
Saha earned the sympathy of the cricket community, and rightly so. Everyone stayed firm in their support from ex-cricketers to fans, asking Saha to name the journalist in question. While most fingers were pointed towards a reputed journalist, who’s close to Ganguly, there were other guesses as well.
The storm stirred by the Saha tweet forced BCCI to launch an investigation, but Saha backed out, reasoning he just wanted to bring the issue to the fore to prevent it from happening again, and his intentions weren’t to jeopardise a career.
Once you have pressed the trigger, the bullet has been fired, and the war declared.
From the case of harassment to bullying, some even went overboard in comparing Saha’s situation to sexual abuse and #MeToo movement. Another day and social media users may even compare his situation with Ukraine. Phew.
Not deciding to name the journalist ensures the mistrust among the community prevails. With several names being among the suspects, guns of suspicion are also pointed at many innocent heads in this ruthless world of social media.