Ojha's time to 'relax' before Test debut
A media conference for the Sri Lanka tour's two newbies, India's uncapped batsmen Naman Ojha and Karun Nair, had trundled along in expected fashion. The two players were resolutely dribbling past all queries until a question was put to Ojha. An attacking wicketkeeper-batsman, Ojha was asked to descontruct his most dour innings during the recent A series versus Australia in Chennai.
In the second unofficial Test, Ojha came in to bat at No. 6 when his team was 53 for 4. His partner at the other end happened to be Nair, with whom Ojha soldiered on for nearly two and a half hours. He scored 10 off 84 balls at a strike rate of 11.90, a giggle-inducing figure in the T20 era of 21st century cricket.
Ojha was asked if that innings had been an attempt to tap into his inner Boycott and develop a new attritional side. In what appeared to be utter panic at the very notion of trying to find the plodder in himself, Ojha's reply came in an earnest, rapidfire outburst. "I don't want to develop anything. Whatever I am I want to be same." There was laughter in the room and he continued, "I love to play my shots. Seniors told me to just spend some time so I was spending some time in the middle. But I think I spent too much time, usually I don't."
Usually he has. Not at the crease, but around India where he should, all things taken into consideration, make his Test debut at the Sinhalese Sports Club in the third and decisive Test against Sri Lanka. He is not a stripling, but a 15-season veteran just turned 32, when the knees may start to hurt a little but the anticipation may be better tuned. As understudy to Wriddhiman Saha, also in his 30s, Ojha knows that this may be his only chance to make an impression in India whites, but said that whatever the pressure that may come with, "I am not thinking about that. I just want to enjoy this game because after a long time I am getting this chance. Waited very long, so just enjoy my game, and don't think about anything."
Like Saha, India's No. 1 choice of wicketkeeper, Ojha's career also coincided with that of MS Dhoni, the wicketkeeper-batsman who went on to redefine the impact potential of the trade for Indian keeper-batsmen across formats. Across a ten-year career, still on in the ODI format, Dhoni has ensured he would, without hesitation, be picked into any all-time India XI across formats. So for both Saha and Ojha, being wicketkeeper-batsmen in the last decade was very similar to being a hardworking spinner in the era of the quartet or a prolific middle-order batsman in the first decade of the 2000s whose name was not Dravid, Tendulkar, Ganguly or Laxman.
Ojha was called in on a 2010 tour of Zimbabwe for a single ODI and two T20Is after which he was consigned back to the factory floor until 2014. It was in fact from 2010-2011, that Ojha blossomed as a consistent batsman for Madhya Pradesh. He played that season as an opener, averaging more than 63 with two centuries and seven fifties in first-class matches but it was the move into the middle order coming in between Nos. 4 and 6, that produced even better rewards, as Ojha headed into his 30s.
Of his 4300 first-class runs since that 2010-11 season, it was his consistency on the 2014 A tour of Australia that gave Ojha greater, to use corporate jargon, "traction" in the eyes of the selectors. He scored a century in each of his three innings, including an unbeaten double-hundred, and amassed a total of 430 runs. He had come into that tour after his best first-class season, which featured four centuries and a fifty in his 858 runs from 15 innings. It was then he was called in as stand-in wicketkeeper with the Indian team on the 2014 tour of England, when Saha had, again, returned home with an injury. In the first-class season of 2014-15, Ojha scored 879 runs with three centuries and as many fifties.
It is that latter set of numbers that will be of greater scrutiny than his appetite for run-making of which there is no doubt. He will now be keeping to a pair of spinners, R Ashwin and Amit Mishra, in form in a country where they pride themselves on being the home of modern spin and take full pride in making wickets that will help their slow bowlers.
Former India wicketkeeper Deep Dasgupta, who played first-class cricket till December 2009 and has followed the domestic circuit as a commentator among other roles, says he has seen a distinct improvement in Ojha's wicketkeeping over the last five to seven seasons. "He is a lot more consistent now and less flashy than he was when he first started," Dasgupta said.
Ojha, whose wicketkeeping hero naturally is Adam Gilchrist, said he had been watching Brad Haddin at work during the recent Ashes and also remembers a conversation with selector and former India wicketkeeper Saba Karim a couple of years ago. His conversation with Karim, who watched him at the SSC nets on Wednesday, was about the art of how to stay on high alert through a six-hour work day and stay successful. Karim had him, Ojha said, about keeping the hands open. "I was watching Brad Haddin in the first Ashes Test, how he is keeping to spinners, how well he is moving to fast bowlers. And he opens his hands also nicely, he is very senior so I was watching how he is keeping."
The veterans will tell you that "hands open" usually means staying physically relaxed, not tensing or flexing the limbs in response to the scoreboard or the situation on the ground, when keeping wickets. Relaxed also translates into getting feet-wise into the right position, having hands that will accept the ball rather than iron-glove it back onto the ground. In that state, it is easier to concentrate and assume that you are ready for every ball that will come to you, even if it is every single one bowled in the day.
On Friday, it could be Ojha's first Test and, never mind how long he has had to wait for it and how much he wants to enjoy it, he must never forget what is his first priority and bounden duty behind the wickets for India. To relax.
Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo