Saha grows out of uncertain phase
MS Dhoni was many things. He was an awkward batsman, a resigned Test captain, a reluctant diver towards first slip, but he was also a joy to watch when he kept wicket to spinners. It will take another freak of nature to start collecting sharply turning deliveries without any give, a reverse follow-through if you will. The one second he saved when managing to complete a take without taking his gloves back to absorb the impact put him miles ahead of any wicketkeeper of spin-bowling.
To add to the pure joy of Dhoni's keeping was his running commentary that could be heard through the stump mic - his wisecracks, his big-brotherly admonishments. Once when Ravindra Jadeja* was not flighting the ball, Dhoni said, "I have not called Pujara to gully to clap and encourage you. He is there to take a catch." Equally legendary was "Sree, there is no girlfriend there" to Sreesanth who had wandered away from his fielding position. To Jadeja he would often say "can bowl from here, too" when he needed a change of an angle. Dhoni's readings of a batsman's mind when facing spin used to be immaculate.
When Dhoni announced his retirement from Tests, in a shock email from the BCCI minutes after he had finished a post-match press conference, we knew these were what we would miss the most about Dhoni. The no-give takes and the mouth. And there was going to be no point trying to emulate him. Those hands and the mind that worked that mouth were unique.
To the team, though, when playing in Asia - where India were likely to play close to 20 Tests in a row - his batting, which enabled them to play five bowlers, was equally, if not more, important. The first time Dhoni moved to No. 6 in a home Test, though, was not part of a plan. It was enforced upon him by short-sighted selection. The squad given to Dhoni included only six batsmen. When one of them - VVS Laxman - fell ill, Rohit Sharma was hastily called up. When Rohit injured himself in the warm-ups before the toss, Wriddhiman Saha, reputed to be the best pure keeper in the country, had to play as a specialist batsman. He scored 0 and 36 as India lost by an innings and six runs. Thus began a journey of a player who looked dead set to be a nearly man.
Saha's next Test came two years later, and the next more than two-and-a-half years later. Both because of Dhoni's absence: due to a suspension and then injury. Both in Adelaide. In that second Adelaide Test, in December last year, he came in to bat in the final innings with under 100 required, five wickets in hand and Virat Kohli still unbeaten. We don't know what the plan was, but it seemed that Saha - an IPL centurion now - was to go for quick runs while Kohli would try to stay till the end. After getting in for the first six balls, he hit Nathan Lyon for a six and a four. All of a sudden India needed just 65 with five wickets in hand for an incredible Test win.
Adrenalin must have flown. He was running away with the Test against the best bowler on offer. Another six and the target would be under 60. Twelve per remaining wicket. How tempting to go for it after you have already done so twice. Saha did so. Bowled. Dhoni was back for the next Test. Who knew when the next Test would be?
The next Test came soon enough with Dhoni's retirement, and in his sixth and seventh matches - both in Sri Lanka - Saha scored crucial fifties to now, finally at the age of 30, start cementing a place in the Test side. A spot many felt he was born for, but was unfortunate in having been born in the same era as Dhoni. In the photo with the trophy from that series, though, you won't see Saha. Instead you will spot a beaming Naman Ojha, who had to be brought mid-series to replace the injured Saha and had responded with a sprightly 35. Had Saha again found a way to be only nearly there? For you never knew with this side, what with its preference for quick runs.
Saha got his chance for Mohali. In fact he was the only wicketkeeper named in the squad. He nearly didn't make Mohali. On the eve of the Test as the rest of the squad went into the nets, Saha sat with a doctor, getting his blood pressure examined. A pill came out. It was popped. Saha went back into the change room. The spring wasn't quite there in his step. A Bengali journalist asked him what the matter was. Saha didn't say much. The journalist asked, "Jor [fever]?" Saha said, "Jor type."
That no replacement was called up was a good sign. Then Saha took field. For those who believe in signs, something extremely significant happened when India bowled the first time round. India had scored only 201. South Africa had started shakily on the first evening, but now Hashim Amla and Dean Elgar had added 76. We were reaching a stage where another half an hour of Amla could have meant South Africa getting into a comfortable position. Amla was trusting his defence. He was managing to stay back to counter the unexpected movement or inconsistent bounce off the pitch.
Then Amla jumped out of the crease to try to get to the pitch of R Ashwin's delivery, but the ball dipped on him and bounced alarmingly. Saha rose but the gloves failed to follow the ball. For that brief moment - it is funny how much can happen in a little moment - you thought how Dhoni would have managed, but the ball hit Saha's chest and fell on the stumps. That ball could have gone anywhere, Amla could have scored more or had a partnership with de Villiers, but he was stumped. All the years of mixed fortune had evaporated in that one moment, well before South Africa had been psychologically damaged for good.
Two Tests later Saha was back in Nagpur, back where it had nearly begun, against the same opposition. This time, though, he did what only three batsmen managed on an extremely difficult surface: bat out 100 balls. Towards the end of the Test he rose beautifully with a turning ball down the leg side to take a deflection off the glove. Umpire Ian Gould, a wicketkeeper himself, was impressed too, perhaps the closest we can get to the fabled reaction of "wonderful" from the square-leg umpire to a leg-side stumping from Jack Blackham. In 123 overs of keeping on that surface Saha conceded just five byes. Dane Vilas let 23 go through.
Saha is not going to run away with games with the bat like Dhoni did, but he has shown he is going to fight just as much with the bat in hand. He cannot even dream of being as entertaining near the stump mic as Dhoni was. In fact, all he can be heard saying is "lubhly, lubhly". He is not as flashy with the stumpings either. But now that Saha seems to have settled in the team, there is still a joy to how he reacts to sharply turning deliveries, puffs of dusts and moving batsmen notwithstanding. The nearly man is finally embedded.
*Bowler's name corrected from Pragyan Ojha to Ravindra Jadeja
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo