Adelaide (2014-15): India needed 364 runs for victory, and were placed at 277/5. Wriddhiman Saha came to the crease, and by stand-in skipper Virat Kohli’s admission later on, was coaxed into attacking the bowling. He faced 10 balls, hit a four and a six, and then was out, bowled through the gate swinging wildly against Nathan Lyon.
Over a period of time, Kohli has referred to that match as a learning marker. It was his first Test as Indian skipper, and a tough loss to accept. The win in Kolkata was only his 16th Test as captain, and it is safe to assume that the knowledge gained in this interim hasn’t only been about tactics, situations and/or strategies alone. Learning what his players can, and indeed cannot do, is part of the curve.
Saha, as an occasional player until that Australian tour, is an obvious element of Kohli’s education in the past year or so. That Adelaide Test was only the third of Saha’s career, and his first in two years. Until then, his part in Indian cricket was limited to being an understudy to MS Dhoni. In less than four weeks thereafter, by the time the Sydney Test rolled about, he was suddenly first-choice keeper.
This step-up isn’t easy. As long as you are just a stand-in, playing one-off matches here and there, the scrutiny isn’t intense. Finally, when you do make that grade, and are replacing someone like Dhoni, the job just becomes tougher. Let it be said here, he is quite good behind the stumps technically, perhaps even better than the man he has replaced. But post Dhoni, no Indian keeper will be judged on that parameter alone.
From Sydney to Fatullah then, Saha was lost in translation. Scores of 35, 0 and 6 didn’t do much for his confidence boost. And yet, even as the selectors and team management backed him, the true realisation of the immense job at hand dawned on the Sri Lanka tour.
It was when Kohli realised that he wanted to play five bowlers more often than not. It was also when the Test skipper acknowledged the need to balance an attacking intent in bowling with quality batsmen in the side. And with Indian cricket lacking a world-class all-rounder, the keeper-batsman became an important cog herein. Dhoni performed that role at No 6 in the late years of his captaincy, especially after the 2-1 loss at home to England, after which playing five bowlers became a necessity.
Since Nagpur 2012 then, Dhoni averaged 53.84 at No 6 in nine Tests then. Condense it to overseas form, and in England (2014), he batted at that position in four Tests, averaging 36.62, inclusive of three half-centuries. In comparison, Saha averages 20.00 in five Tests at this spot, with one fifty.
Yet there is a need to look deeper in here. That half-century came in the first Test on that Lankan tour, at Galle, where India collapsed inexplicably in the second innings. If Kohli refers to that Adelaide Test loss for his initiation as Test captain, he refers to the Galle Test for his learning about that balance between bat and ball, the differentiator between picking five bowlers or seven batsmen.
Post that series, Saha batted at No 6 in the Mohali Test, the only time where India played five bowlers against South Africa (discounting Stuart Binny in Bangalore). Despite a comfortable win there, Saha’s scores of 0 and 20 brought about a change in thinking.
The No 6 batsman requires a mix of aggression and defence, the ability to play out both with the middle order and the tail, the ability to prolong the innings. Over time, Dhoni had tempered his game to suit this role. But the Bengal keeper-batsman was a bit too aggressive.
So when India played their next Test in West Indies, nearly seven months after the South Africa series, Kohli asked R Ashwin to bat at No 6. It broke the shackles on Saha’s batting, and allowed him to play his natural game. In both Antigua and Jamaica, he was able to go on the attack from the very offing.
At St Lucia though, he faced his true test. A hard grind early on, patience thereafter, and cutting loose against the second new ball, that maiden hundred was a payback to Kohli’s faith in him.
In comparison to that situation, struggling against a lowly West Indies’ attack when they ought to have been comfortably cruising, the Kolkata Test was a cakewalk. Playing in front of his home crowd, Saha was resolute under pressure while looking to play his shots, and the twin fifties encircled his progress in the past year.
In the first innings, it was about batting with the tail and playing the aggressor while also mindful of the score needed to exert pressure on the Kiwis. In the second innings, the motive was stitching the middle and lower orders together, and providing yet another cushion to the bowlers good enough to push for victory.
At a time when India’s top-order is struggling – three and a half collapses in four innings of this series – having someone come lower down the order, and drop the anchor whilst playing his natural game on a tough pitch was priceless.
“Saha has been doing really well this year. He is batting at a position that is very important in Test cricket, and a keeper coming good is an added bonus. It is about building confidence for a particular individual, because we understand how important his character can be in a situation where maybe you need to play out an hour or you need 40 quick runs again. And the guy who is confident, can do the job for you,” said Kohli after the 178-run win in Kolkata.
Confidence is the keyword here, and the skipper has that quality flowing through his veins. He wants the same to be imbibed in his players as well, and has allowed them time to discover this. In turn, this has allowed someone like Saha to come full circle and grow in his capabilities. It is a key aspect in the making of a very fine Test team.