Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Thank you, Wriddhiman Saha, for showing us that there is life beyond MS Dhoni

The wicketkeeper-batsman was India’s unsung hero in their 2-1 series triumph over Australia

Wriddhiman Saha made his first-class debut for Bengal in November 2007. In a match that Bengal drew, he scored a century on debut.

A first-class century on debut by a wicket-keeper. Ponder on that for a moment. It’s not something which happens every day. It’s a feat that could have easily made the headlines if it happened today.

Unfortunately for Saha, just two months before his feat, Indian cricket had its biggest moment in the sun, till then. A long-haired wicketkeeper-batsman named Mahendra Singh Dhoni had led India to their first global title in 24 years. They had won the World Twenty20 in South Africa.

That was it for any chances in the national team for any aspiring keeper. Dhoni’s star kept becoming bigger and bigger, he became one of Indian cricket’s biggest heroes. And the Bengal keeper from Siliguri went quietly back to the domestic game and kept plugging away.

He did get a few chances, here and there, as India’s back-up keeper. But his biggest step-up came when Mahendra Singh Dhoni announced his retirement from Test cricket at the end of 2014. With backing from new captain Virat Kohli, Saha became India’s primary wicketkeeper.

Dhoni-sized boots to fill

And, yet the doubts persisted. Could Saha really fit into Dhoni’s massive boots? Was he not a little over the hill? Shouldn’t India blood a younger keeper? Why not give Rishabh Pant or Naman Ojha a go?

In the beginning, Saha did little to brush away those doubts. In Adelaide, the Siliguri lad came in to bat with India 277/5, chasing 364 to script what would have been a miraculous win. Yet, he played a rash shot and was dismissed. India went on to lose the match and the series. Saha copped much criticism for that shot.

After that series, the general feeling was that Saha was a stop-gap solution. Definitely not a MS Dhoni successor. Three years down the line, the 32-year-old has provided an emphatic answer to any and all nagging doubts.

Take Saha out from this Border-Gavaskar Trophy. Have a look at what you’re left with. No, don’t just include his gritty 117 in Ranchi, which saved India the match, his patient 31 in Dharamsala, which gave India a vital lead, or his unbeaten 20 in Bengaluru, which extended India’s lead just that little further.

Take, for example, this stumping. Renshaw was batting on 60 in Australia’s first innings in Bengaluru. Australia were 134/2, just 55 behind India’s total. The Aussie opener was beginning to open up and had already carted Ravindra Jadeja for a six over his head.

Yes, credit to Jadeja for his smart thinking. But look at how Saha anticipated the opportunity. Expertly moving down the leg side, predicting how the ball was going straight down, collecting it well away from the stumps and whipping off the bails in a flash. A crucial moment. And in case you had forgotten, Saha had taken the catch to dismiss Australia’s Steve Smith as well earlier in the innings.

Now, let’s look at Ranchi. Again, it was the Saha-Jadeja duo. Glenn Maxwell was on 104, his partnership with Steve Smith was already 191. The ball turned just the little extra. It got the edge. Saha had got up just at the right time. He collected with ease. Not a trace of discomfort. The partnership was broken.

And then to Dharamsala. Imagine the keeper’s predicament. Over the entire home season, he had got used to keeping on typically Indian pitches. Turn and bounce, the one keeping low. And now in the fourth Test, he had to completely recalibrate. The bounce was head-high and there were cracks as well on the surface.

Tireless adaptation

Umesh Yadav and Bhuvneshwar Kumar peppered Australia’s openers with bouncers when they began their second innings. Saha was equal to the task not allowing a single bye. And when the chance arrived, he took it clean as a whistle. This was a pitch which should have suited David Warner’s strengths. It could have but Warner got a hard edge to an Umesh Yadav inswinger. It flew to Saha. There was not a trace of discomfort. Catch calmly taken.

Even in Pune, Saha pulled off one of the most stunning catches you will ever see in cricket. India could not win that Test, yes, but it proved the quality of glovework that India is lucky to have behind the stumps.

The true Dhoni successor

What-ifs can never provide a true assessment, but do ponder over this: What if Saha had dropped Smith in the first innings in Bengaluru? Or messed up the Renshaw stumping? Or dropped Warner in Dharamsala? Would the series still be 2-1 to India?

And then consider all that with his immense contributions. His tireless keeping behind the stumps, reading Jadeja and Ravichandran Ashwin to perfection. Supporting Umesh Yadav, Ishant Sharma and Bhuvneshwar Kumar. Reading Kuldeep Yadav’s unorthodox bowling perfectly. And now, factor in those crucial runs.

If there’s one thing, Saha can improve on, perhaps, it’s his decision-making in the entire DRS process. But that would be nitpicking. Let’s not be shy to say it, wicketkeepers are only noticed when they do something wrong. And in this series, Saha has never given anyone that chance. Whether be it with his bat or with his over-sized gloves, he has been the unsung hero of this series victory.

But more importantly, he has given Indian cricket fans an important message. There is life behind the stumps after Mahendra Singh Dhoni.

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