There is something so wretched about being reduced to 63 for four, chasing a mammoth target. Yet, twice in the last ten days, two teams discovered that there is something so beautiful about it. It is easier said in hindsight, of course. After India pulled off a heist in Pune against England, it was Rest of India's (ROI) turn against first time Ranji Trophy champions, Gujarat. There was an obvious subtext to the drama that unfolded in Mumbai, with the Australia series a month away. Notwithstanding their vapid diplomacy, Wriddhiman Saha and Parthiv Patel had more to play for than others.
In a surrealistic turn of events, the two wicket-keepers are jostling for a spot, after being left on standby in the presence of MS Dhoni, for donkey’s years. But, when Dhoni called it quits from Test cricket, Saha was by default the undisputed successor, with no competitors in the vicinity. He furthered his credentials and therefore the gap between him and whoever the Mr X in queue was, with a hundred in West Indies, and two tenacious fifties against New Zealand in Kolkata. All those innings were timely rescue missions, synonymous with wicket-keeper batsmen of the yore; of whom Saha is the archetype, and Parthiv the antithesis.
But, it is remarkable how quickly a steep climb to the top, can turn into a freefall into an abyss. Few weeks after consolidating his position as India's number one wicket-keeper, Saha had a poor match in Rajkot against England. Generally, for anyone who doesn't bowl, a poor match would constitute a couple of low scores. For Saha, however, who is a keeper first, it was a lacklustre performance behind the stumps. Then, schadenfreude took effect, as Saha strained his left thigh, paving way for Parthiv, who was to play his first Test in eight years.
During the time taken by Saha to nurse his injury, Parthiv played three Tests, opening the batting in two of them, scoring 195 runs at an average of 65, besides leading Gujarat to a Ranji Trophy title, with a match-winning hundred. Although chief selector MSK Prasad maintained (albeit in a personal capacity) that the foremost criterion for picking a Test wicket-keeper is the quality of glovework: an area where Saha pips Parthiv, it is unlikely that the ease with which Parthiv got those runs, and the versatility that he offered, could have been overlooked too long. There was a marked improvement in his wicket-keeping, too, especially in the Mumbai Test, where the ball spun and kicked viciously off the pitch.
Saha's standing as the first-choice wicket-keeper may not have been under immediate threat, especially since Prasad indicated that the Irani Cup was only going to be a test of Saha's fitness, given that he was out of the team due to injury and not lack of form.
But with someone breathing heavily down his neck for the first time, he would have been denuded of the sense of security he enjoyed, since Dhoni's retirement. What Saha could ill afford was being outplayed by Parthiv in all departments.
Half way into the Irani Cup, the tell-tale signs were ominous for Saha. The worst nearly fructified, except Parthiv didn't get a score of note, either.
Parthiv was, however, the safer keeper. Saha's first innings duck after a long lay-off was more pardonable than a regulation dropped chance of Chirag Gandhi, to his right.
The replay was a talking point among commentators when Parthiv made a similar catch look ridiculously easy, moving swiftly to his right before putting in a dive, to pouch the ball in both hands. Saha went belatedly, with one hand and negligible movement of the right foot.
The moment had no bearing on the match, but only a cricket buff stricken with amnesia would have forgotten that Saha put down a similar chance against England in Rajkot, when India were kept in the field longer than any other time in recent memory. It was a lapse in concentration, one did not previously associate with Saha, and one that is hard to categorise an anomaly, considering that this has happened twice in three matches now. The fact that the catches were missed off seamers is further mystifying.
The keeping error magnified Saha's first innings duck, leaving scope for redemption only with the bat. It is impossible to say with absolute conviction whether the chief selector would have been in a position to publicly declare Saha India’s first-choice keeper, had ROI's second innings transpired any differently.
As it turned out, Saha will be remembered for his maiden double hundred that helped ROI gun down 379 at a canter, after being reduced to 63 for four.
He broke a slew of records en route to his unbeaten 203, becoming the first keeper to have done so in the Irani Cup, also becoming the first batsman to register a double hundred in the fourth innings of an Irani Cup match. Paradoxically, it was Saha's batting; supposedly his weaker suit, that bailed him out of a tricky come back match.
Updated Date: Jan 25, 2017 12:49:19 IST