The match-up between Parthiv Patel and Wriddhiman Saha for a Test spot didn't appear on the horizon until a couple of months ago. After MS Dhoni had retired at the end of 2014, Saha seemed to have finally sewed up his place in the side. His credentials as arguably India's best specialist wicketkeeper remained unchallenged, but his back-to-the-wall hundred in St. Lucia and two unbeaten half-centuries on a tricky pitch in his hometown of Kolkata, against New Zealand, made him one of the more valuable members of the side.
His captain Virat Kohli singled out Saha for praise, and said success couldn't come to a nicer team-man. Nothing could go wrong now. Or could it? During the second Test against England, Saha strained his left thigh. Enter Parthiv for the third Test. It wasn't an altogether surprising choice given Parthiv's improved glove-work, and the fact that he has never averaged less than 45 in the Ranji Trophy since 2012-13.
In Mohali, Parthiv was safe with the big gloves, but by no means electrifying. He made an impression with the bat, though, playing two spunky knocks of 42 and 67*, the half-century in India's chase of 103. With Saha still recovering, Parthiv held down his spot for the next two Tests and smashed a useful 71 in the final Test in Chennai. Parthiv then went back to the Ranji Trophy and smashed 90 and 143 in the final against Mumbai to drive Gujarat to their maiden title.
Ahead of the Mohali Test, India coach Anil Kumble had said Saha was India's first-choice wicketkeeper. After Parthiv's returns in the England series, it might not be such a straightforward decision after all. With national selector Sarandeep Singh doubling up as Rest of India coach, the Irani Cup match could be a crucial audition ahead of the five home Tests this season. While Parthiv will lead Gujarat, Saha will feature in his first competitive fixture since the Vizag Test.
On the eve of the match, Saha is almost through with his wicket-keeping drills at the Brabourne Stadium. He has taken a few catches towards the end of the session, and wears a smile as Cheteshwar Pujara, the Rest of India captain, and a few other team-mates appear to be joking around. Most of Rest of India's players have headed back to the dressing room, but Saha calmly walks back to the middle and takes a seat under an umbrella near the practice net. A couple of net bowlers seek him out for a chat.
On the other side, Parthiv, having just completed a meeting, briskly bounds in to chat with the media. Like with any Parthiv interaction, there is plenty of political correctness, a pleasant smile, and overall optimism. Immediately after the presser, he scoots off to the nets for a hit.
Stillness is not something you associate with Parthiv - he is either chirping behind the stumps or cutting, pulling and doing the dab-and-run routine with the bat. Meanwhile, Saha, normally a man of few words, is still talking. A few other boys seem to have approached him for cricketing advice and he appears to be more than generous with it.
Watching Parthiv, 31, and Saha, 32, is a fascinating exercise not least for the contrasts they offer. While it is tempting to speculate what's going on in their minds, you can be sure that neither of them is going to reveal much. When asked about them competing for the same slot, Parthiv expectedly took the diplomatic route. "It's just a game between Gujarat and Rest of India, so we will stick to that," he said. "I think it's not a game between two players. We all know he [Saha] is a very talented player. There is a game to be won and we will be focusing on that."
From a neutral standpoint, Pujara could see the benefits of such competition. He felt having back-up players in every department was essential for a strong India side. "If we want to be No. 1 in the world we need to have some back-up players not just wicketkeepers but even other departments," he said. "We need a bunch of players who are always ready and when they come in to the Indian team they perform. I always believe that if you have a healthy competition it is very good for the Indian team.
"Someone like Karun Nair is a prime example. He was doing well in the India A team and when he got the opportunity he scored a triple-hundred. Both [Parthiv and Saha] are hard-working players and have performed well for India and at the domestic level. I wish them luck."