"His keeping credentials are for everyone to see. He has done well with the bat whenever he has got a chance. It was unfortunate that he was out with an injury. According to me, he is the best keeper in the world. With these conditions, he starts for us."
These were the words of India captain Virat Kohli ahead of the three-match Test series against South Africa, as he declared a day ahead of the opener at Vizag that Wriddhiman Saha – and not Rishabh Pant – will assume the position of wicketkeeper for India’s first home assignment under the inaugural World Test Championship cycle.
It came to the surprise of more than a few, and Twitter was abuzz with a few notable statistics around the benched 22-year-old: "Pant averages 44.35 in Tests"; "Pant is the fastest Indian to 50 Test catches"; "Pant holds the world record for most catches in a Test."
The Indian team, and its decision-makers, however, were looking beyond the bare numbers.
You could break down the possible discussion around this selection to four key questions:
- Is Saha better behind the stumps than Pant?
- If yes, is the difference in ‘keeping chops enough to make up for Pant’s higher (on-paper) batting
- Would Saha have been playing more Test cricket if he hadn’t been hampered by injuries?
- Does it become increasingly difficult to give lesser-equipped youngsters an outing for experience’s sake in the wake of the World Test Championship?
The answer to the last question is a definite yes. The answer to the second-last question may not be as definite a yes, but it is a count where this author tips his hat to the team management for staying true to one of the ‘rules’ they established in the starting years of the Kohli-Shastri regime: That players who lose their spot in the team to injury will be given a fair chance to find their place back in the setup.
The answers to the first two questions, however, were undoubtedly the deciding points for this edition of the Saha-vs-Pant debate, and it’s going to be a regular feature for the next year or two, one imagines.
The first area, sadly for those invested in (or wanting to invest in) Pant, is a bit of a no-contest.
Even before Kohli’s proclamation of Saha being the “best in the world”, it was common knowledge that in red-ball cricket, there is no one as good wearing the ‘keeping gloves in the country as Saha.
This is also a count where Pant has done himself no favours by racking up a high error-count in what is still a very young career as a glovesman. It’s easy to look at the column that reads 51 catches in 11 Tests, or turn giddy by the world-record 11 catches in the Adelaide Test, but that would mean ignoring the finer print.
It may only have been 11 Tests so far, but in the first of those, at Nottingham in 2018, Pant dropped Jos Buttler when he was on 1 – and Buttler went on to hit a hundred (fortunately for Pant and India, it was in pursuit of an always improbable 521-run target); in the very next game, at Southampton, Pant conceded 30 byes in a low-scoring clash – India lost by 60 runs; he gave away a further 40 byes in the Test that followed, at The Oval (where India lost by 118 runs); Pant’s record-breaking catch hauls in Australia, too, weren’t without a fair dose of dropped dollies.
Saha, in comparison, has held the mantle of best glovesman through the five years of MS Dhoni’s Test retirement, much before the ‘Wriddhiman Superman’ moniker started doing the rounds following his acrobats in Pune this past week – Theunis de Bruyn and Umesh Yadav will be the first to agree, and Yadav has already vehemently backed the calls.
“I need to give him a treat because I think those two wickets are Wriddhi bhai's only,” the fast bowler said to the host broadcaster at the end of the match, when asked about Saha’s flying efforts to get rid of de Bruyn in both innings.
“When you put the ball outside leg stump you think it'll be a boundary, but if there is a little bit of a chance to convert a catch, we know he will take it,” Yadav added.
For your information: Saha will turn 35 the day after the scheduled end of the third Test at Ranchi.
When the gulf in wicketkeeping standards is as much, you can begin to see reason behind ignoring the 14-point difference in the batting averages of Saha and Pant, especially when in Indian conditions – where getting a grip on the spinners’ turn has been the bane for every ‘keeper over the decades.
But even in the batting, where Pant may be considered vastly better on numbers, there is more than what meets the eye.
Sure, Pant hit centuries in both England and Australia – countries where no Indian wicketkeeper-batsman had ever reached three figures – but his 114 at The Oval was a bit of a ‘hail Mary’ knock played on a flattish fifth day track at a stage where the game was well beyond India, and the 159 not out in Sydney was on the flattest deck you can imagine in the Southern Hemisphere, with the added rider of the meat of his runs coming against an attack that had been out on the field for over a day-and-a-half.
Take nothing away from Pant, though, for those feats were still special – but do not deride Saha’s batting capabilities, because he’s done the dirty job for the team on more than one occasion, with a far more telling impact on those games.
Take his maiden Test century, in St Lucia in 2016, where he walked out with the team in steep trouble and added 213 for the sixth wicket with Ravichandran Ashwin (the remaining nine partnerships put together combined for 140 runs); or his sole Man-of-the-Match award in Tests, which came in a game where he only made one dismissal behind the stumps – but more crucially, hit unbeaten half-centuries in both innings, marshalling the tail on both occasions, to tilt the Kolkata Test of 2016 against New Zealand decisively in India’s favour; or his highest Test score, 117 against Australia in Ranchi in 2017, where he was part of a marathon stand lasting 77.4 overs with Cheteshwar Pujara, ensuring India couldn’t lose the game.
So don’t go purely by the 30.38 average, compared to Pant’s 44.35, or even the returns of 2.4 catches per Test in comparison to Pant’s 4.6 – Ashwin has held the best seats to Saha’s marquee contributions in either capacity, and his words from the Pune Test only add to the Saha story.
“It's a no-brainer to say that Saha is one of the best going around, and I've hardly seen him miss anything… Saha's obviously got great composure too, and you can't really rule him out with the bat either. He's had some really handy contributions for the team, so he's a great character and a great keeper to have in the side.”
Composure behind the stumps. Contributions with the bat. Character overall.
You see what the team and the management are seeing, and what led them to this decision; you also see why life isn’t going to come easy for Pant – and in that regard, Saha, inadvertently, is helping not just India’s present, but also their future.
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