SOMETIME WHEN HE was just a chhele, wee boy in Bengali, Wriddhiman Saha was taken by hand to a maidan in Siliguri. On reaching the edge of the field, Prasanta, Saha’s father, was greeted by two lengthy queues, both electric with children his son’s age, a hundred feeble limbs outstretched in varying attitudes of exertion. In one line, the kids were shadow practicing their batting strokes and in the other, the bowlers were warming up their shoulders with measured rotations.
From the far end of the field where father and son stood with interlocked palms, Prasanta soon noticed a third, visibly smaller, queue. Insofar and small enough for the line to not be considered one. Prasanta surveyed the spread, then trained his eyes on his son standing by his knees and said, “Keeping korbe?”
“ Korbo,” little Saha replied. And off he went to join the six wannabe wicketkeepers in the fray at the trials.
“That day, when I got back home, my father asked me not if I was selected but if I had fun. I thought about it and said, ‘Yes, but wicketkeeping is hard work.’ I realised on day one that keeping is hard on the knees, back, hard on the dimaag. When I said that, my father looked at me and told me something I will never forget. He said, ‘Aasaan kaam sab kar sakte hai. Mushkil kaam mein mazey lo’ (‘If the work is easy then anyone can do it. Find pleasure in a difficult job.’).”
It’s relatively easy for Saha to narrate this episode today without skipping out the fine details and the life lessons he gained from it. Because today he is, after all, reminiscing from the luxury of being India’s first-choice Test wicketkeeper and one of only four indispensable names on Virat Kohli’s team-sheet. Kohli, Rahane, Ashwin, Saha—the spine around which the playing eleven of the No 1 Test team in cricket will flesh out for the five-match Test series against England, which begins November 9th. But the journey to get here, this place where he too is irreplaceable, was long (two decades in the making) and anything but luxurious. For the queue that Saha’s father led him to that day was, and continued to be, a mirage, an optical illusion. Shortest in length, longest in wait.
To get into his state’s first-class side, Saha had to bide his time until Deep Dasgupta, former India wicketkeeper and Bengal’s bedrock, stopped squatting behind the stumps. And to break into the national team, he was waiting behind MS Dhoni, a man who was already many things for India—a leader, a finisher, a legend and the very definition of the modern day keeper-batsman. The task of shaking off Dhoni’s shadow would’ve, and has, broken less patient men (you know the ones, Parthiv Patel, Dinesh Karthik, Naman Ojha). But Saha knew better—‘If the work is easy then anyone can do it. Find pleasure in a difficult job.’
“Right from my childhood, I knew how to focus only on what I can do and not think of the rest,” he says during our phone interview. On the field, he isn’t the chatterbox his crouching tribe tend to be. The most the stump-mic ever picks up from him is an occasional “byooty, byooty”. Or a “shobash”. Even at his talkative best, Saha doesn’t elaborate much. But he chooses the few words that string his sentences with great care. “Mahi bhai is a match winner, he has done so much for India. You can’t replace him. Even if you try, you can’t be like him, so why try to be like him? All you can do is be yourself and focus on your strength, your potential.”
A wicketkeeper can never switch off on the field in any case. Not even between deliveries. Yeh dimaag ka khel hai. You need great physical fitness and even greater mental fitness
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Strength and potential. Two sides of the same coin. Or in a keeper’s case, two sides of the stumps. Strength—behind the bails, where Saha is widely recognised for owning the safest set of hands, a man with acute awareness of his craft. Potential—in front of the crease, where as a lower order batsman he has the ability to shut one end down or speed things up (all while batting with the tail), depending purely on the match situation. On both sides of the woodwork, Saha has the numbers to back his title of mainstay. Numbers bloated within the space of the last four months, no less.
As a keeper, Saha became just the third Indian keeper (after Syed Kirmani and Dhoni) to effect six dismissals (five catches and a stumping) in a single innings, achieved during India’s first Test (Antigua) of the West Indies tour in August this year. Those palms were working well inside all sorts of gloves in the Caribbean for Saha seized his moment as a batsman too, with his first international hundred in the third Test (St Lucia).
Then he did something even more special—twin fifties in a low scoring, fast burning thriller in his home ground, the Eden Gardens in Kolkata, against New Zealand just a month ago. From the club house, his young family—wife Romi and two-year-old daughter Anvi—blushed as he received his first Man of the Match award.
“I’m pleased with the performances you mention because it came in a team win,” he says. Yes, it sure does have the whiff of false modesty, the banal cricket-is-a-team-sport quote. But it’s the way Saha says it that makes you believe he means it. “More than records, I would much rather score a 40 on a tough pitch while batting with the tail and get the team to a respectable score and then take one important catch in the field to help turn the match. That’s my main role in this team, to contribute any which way, with a catch, with an appeal, with the bat, doesn’t matter. When I do that I’m satisfied.”
You can’t replace Mahi bhai. Even if you try, you can’t be like him, so why try to be like him? All you can do is be yourself and focus on your strength, your potential
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But when he is asked, point blank, which of his 18 Tests from his nascent career he remembers most vividly on any given day, you can hear a chuckle at the other end of the line. “Nagpur,” he says, still laughing. “That’ll be Nagpur.” In Nagpur, nearly seven winters ago, Saha made his international debut. Long after he is retired and decides to focus on his restaurant, Puran Dhaka in Kolkata, he will have one helluva tale to tell his dinner guests.
FEBRUARY 2010. COMING off a promising Ranji season, Saha received the phone call he hadn’t even dared dream of all these years—‘Pack your kit. India calling.’ Saha was chosen as a back-up for keeper Dhoni in India’s 16-member squad for the two home Tests against the visiting South Africans. He knew his chances of making the playing eleven were less than slim (unless Dhoni got injured); still, he made it to the team hotel in Nagpur, following a hazardous 14-hour road journey from Siliguri to Kolkata, beaming.
“As soon as I got to Nagpur, Gary (Kirsten, former South Africa batsman and the then incumbent coach of India) told me that I will not be playing the game and asked me to practise by myself as the core unit needed all the attention,” Saha says. “I did as I was told.”
On the morning of the Test, about 90 minutes before start of play, the team physio announced that VVS Laxman hadn’t passed the fitness test—his broken finger still hadn’t healed. No alarms went off at this juncture, as Rohit Sharma, brought into the squad for this series as a back-up batsman, was ready to make his much awaited Test debut.
Dhoni had even inked Sharma’s name into the final team sheet and was walking out to the field for the toss when he, and the rest of the squad, watched Sharma damage his ankle while returning to the pavilion after the final round of warm ups. Sharma had stepped in an awkward fashion over a rocket-ball strewn by the boundary rope. Those present at the ground that day say that Sharma looked shocked and Saha, walking just a couple of feet behind him, nervous. Very, very nervous.
I would much rather score a 40 on a tough pitch while batting with the tail and get the team to a respectable score and then take one important catch to help turn the match
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And thus the boy—one used to long waits in short keeping queues was whisked through the most substantial (in terms of both length and depth) batting one—became a Test player. Before Sharma, before Kohli, before Ashwin, before Rahane, before Pujara, before nearly anyone in the current Test squad. “Sachin paaji gave me my Test cap,” he says. Number 263.
Saha doesn’t speak very much of what unfolded after that. But in his silence you can sense that his mind’s eye is currently watching the forgettable highlight reel from the game. Him playing as a pure batsman (Dhoni still kept wickets), patrolling the boundary ropes as an outfielder for a major part of the first two days. Him finally getting a chance to make a mark, only to shoulder arms to a Dale Steyn special and being bowled for a three-ball zero. Him gritting it out in India’s follow-on innings with a handy 36. And him being dropped from the national scene for the next two years.
Over the next five years, Saha got a chance to play just two more Test matches. Both in Adelaide. Both as cover for Dhoni. But then, just like that, half way through the 2014-15 tour of Australia, Dhoni retired from Test cricket—making Kohli the permanent captain, who in turn made Saha the permanent keeper.
“Saha is the best wicketkeeper in the country and is doing a great job in Test cricket,” Kohli is quoted as saying. “He’s fantastic behind the stumps, can bat and play his shots in front of it. What more can I ask?”
Saha is well aware of his integral role in the team—a team that has gone unbeaten in 13 consecutive Tests under Kohli and a team that is expected to exact their pound of flesh when England (who won the last series in India 2-1) get here. But he doesn’t let the expectations saddle his shoulders with pressure. Instead, Saha says he wears it with respect. “In Virat’s team, everyone is equal. We take great joy in each others’ success, that’s the main sign of a happy, equal team.” Equality has also manifested at a more measurable level. The entire side has metamorphosed into a breathtaking fielding unit and Saha is grateful to be at the centre of it.
“A wicketkeeper can never switch off on the field in any case. Not even between deliveries. Yeh dimaag ka khel hai (this game is played in the mind). You need great physical fitness and even greater mental fitness. But with ever-alert fielders like Jaddu [Ravindra Jadeja], Virat, Umesh [Yadav], Jinx [Ajinkya Rahane] keeping you company, the process becomes fun,” says Saha. “My challenge against England is not the fitness to keep for five Test matches. No. That would be keeping to Ash.”
Ash, or Ashwin to us, has been the central figure in Indian cricket during home Tests since his debut in 2011. In just 39 Tests overall, spanning 14 Test series home and abroad, Ashwin has monstered his way to seven Man of the Series performances and 220 wickets (setting the Indian record for fastest to 200 along the way). A great majority of those dismissals, 153 in fact, have come at home, on dusty turning tracks, where he facilitates the fall of 20 wickets and where, keeping to him is just another synonym for ‘nightmare’.
“It’s a thankless job, wicketkeeping is. And when Ash is bowling, with all his wonderful variations and great changes in pace, the job becomes even more difficult,” says Saha. What makes it a tad bearable for Saha is the fact that he and Ashwin have a keen understanding of each other. “We bat one after another in the order and when he is not bowling, he is standing at slips and we are discussing the game.”
“It doesn’t make it any easier when he is bowling. Then again, if keeping to Ashwin was easy, everybody will be able to do it.”