The aim of whitewashing West Indies in their own backyard earlier this year didn't materialise. India had failed to wind up things on the fifth day of the second Test at Kingston, Jamaica, but to say that they had lost confidence as a result of the failure would be going over the top.
However, there is no denying that Roston Chase’s courageous century had shaken the visitors up. His maiden ton, and important half-centuries by three other members of the Caribbean side forced a draw, but it felt as if the Windies had won the match. There were no longer talks of the West Indies being pushovers. The Indian team now had to prove their critics wrong in the third Test at Gros Islet.
Kohli opted for Rohit Sharma instead of Murali Vijay and Cheteshwar Pujara. Experts felt the team lacked solidarity. And they were vindicated to an extent when India were left reeling on the first day by a fired up West Indies.
At 126/5, the situation was gloomy for India. Ajinkya Rahane fell on 35 and Wriddhiman Saha walked in. Saha’s arrival at the crease, more often than not, goes unnoticed. He walks in quietly without much fuss and takes guard. He’s not a batsman who sends chills down the bowlers’ spine. And often his dismissal is also not a cause for wild celebrations. With Ravichandran Ashwin and Saha at the centre, critics reckoned that India would do well to reach 250. However, both batsmen started the process of recovery with different intentions.
Saha was more than happy to play the second fiddle to Ashwin during the partnership. He had always been one, be it in his initial part of career where he had to fight the established Deep Dasgupta for his place in the Bengal team, or being MS Dhoni’s backup in the Indian team until the former Indian Test captain retired.
Windies’ patience was put to test as Ashwin and Saha helped India recuperate to reach 234 at stumps on day 1. It was the same story on the second day. India had reached 317/5 and Saha was batting on 94, when Ashwin brought out his inner Virender Sehwag to hit Chase over mid-on to get to his century.
Few overs later, Saha scored his maiden ton but lost his wicket barely five balls later. But the job was done. He ensured, along with Ashwin, that India's score went past 350. For someone who averaged only 21.58 in 11 matches before the series in the Caribbean, the contribution was immense.
Then came the Kolkata Test against New Zealand. The match in which local boy Saha scored two half-centuries at critical junctures. In the first innings, he had to accelerate the scoring along with the tail-enders, to take India past 300, which he did with his 85-ball unbeaten 54. In the second innings, he had to bat long enough to stay with Rohit Sharma and the tail to set an unachievable target for the Kiwis. The century stand between Rohit and him for the seventh wicket was vital, which allowed the bowlers to go all-out for the series-clinching win. The quality display at his home ground earned Saha his first Man of the Match award. He was also hailed by Kohli after the Test for his batting.
“Saha is the best wicketkeeper in the country right now and he's doing a great job in Test cricket. Saha is wonderful behind the stumps and can bat. He backs himself to play his shots,” the Indian Test captain said at the presentation ceremony after India won the second Test. Kohli’s praise must have done a world of good to the Bengal lad who is still trying to fill the void that was created when Dhoni bid adieu to longest format of the game.
MSDs’ retirement during India's tour of Australia in 2014 took everyone by surprise. But the decision must have surprised Saha the most. He was suddenly India’s first-choice wicketkeeper. He had a daunting task ahead of him. Dhoni's shoes were not easy to fill and the expectations were high. Saha had the potential but didn't exactly set the world on fire early on in his career.
In modern cricket, the role of a glovesman has changed. It is a role that Dhoni performed efficiently. Contributions from the keeper, especially when a team wants to play five bowlers – which was the case in the early part of Kohli’s tenure as skipper – has become crucial for being successful in Test cricket. Saha's efforts behind the stumps weren’t a problem, but his work in front of the stumps was an issue he had to rectify. Yes, there were a couple of fifties in testing conditions against Sri Lanka in 2015, but still the scope for improvement was vast. The century against West Indies and two fifties against the Black Caps are small steps on the way to his growth as a batsman.
Saha’s fairly fruitful run is partly due to Ashwin’s promotion at No 6, one place above the former. It was a move taken to increase Ashwin’s confidence with the bat, but it could also have backfired if the Bengal batsman interpreted it as the team management's lack of trust in him. Thankfully it didn’t. The change took the pressure off the 32-year-old Saha and he started expressing himself in the middle.
When Saha takes the field against England in the upcoming Test series, it will be his debut series against the side. With Rohit being absent with an injury, the responsibility of stitching together the middle order and lower-middle order will be Saha's. There are chances of Hardik Pandya or Karun Nair featuring in the Test side for the first time. If either of them does, the Bengal wicketkeeper should make sure that he plays the role of aggressor and allows them to settle.
And more than anything, it’s time for him to break the string of one-digit scores and be consistent. There is a fair chance that the injured James Anderson would return to the side after the first Test, and Saha should ask his teammate Mohammed Shami to help him practise against reverse swing. Because, once England’s leading wicket-taker comes back, Saha will be facing him more often than he would want to. Reverse swing is Anderson’s most-feared skill, which tormented India the last time England toured India in 2012. Saha should keep himself ready for the challenge.
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