Saha's patience pays off in maiden Test ton
Nagpur, December 2015. In a match that will be remembered for the havoc the spinners caused, South Africa's fast bowlers were hurting India with reverse swing. Morne Morkel had swung one in to bowl Ajinkya Rahane, and swung one away to nick off Virat Kohli.
At 116 for 5, in walked Wriddhiman Saha. He got off the mark on the fourth ball he faced, edging Morkel wide of gully. Then Kagiso Rabada, playing only his third Test match, replaced Morkel and showed his precocious gifts included an ability to manipulate the old-ball. He curled three balls away from Saha, all on a good length, and beat him three times in a row. Saha's bat was swishing at the ball, its angle far from perpendicular, and his front foot, skating rather than stepping forward, was catching up after the ball had passed.
Saha would be beaten repeatedly by Rabada that afternoon, but at the end of it, aided partially by the fortune of missing rather than edging all those balls, he would become the only Indian batsman to play an innings lasting over 100 balls in the match. It wasn't news to anyone that Saha could fight for his runs. He had done it many times before, whether it was at the same ground on a Test debut made in strange circumstances five years previously, or in Adelaide, Sydney, Galle or Colombo. But there had always seemed something homespun, something not wholly secure about his technique.
He seemed to have, all at once, a short front-foot stride, a tendency to try and compensate by reaching for the ball, a dominant bottom hand that caused his bat to trace unusual arcs while driving, and a tendency to play across his front pad. And here he was, playing another innings of grit and smarts making up for an iffy technique. He was playing for a team that was beginning to play five specialist bowlers at every opportunity, as the wicketkeeper-batsman bridging a short top-order and a long lower-order. His wicketkeeping was often a joy to watch, but was his batting good enough to hold down a long-term place in a side packed with bowlers?
On Monday afternoon Saha walked in with India 126 for 5 and R Ashwin at the other end. At the start of the series, Ashwin had been promoted to No. 6, one place above Saha in the batting order. It was a statement of confidence in Ashwin's batting, but it could also be read as a statement of mistrust in Saha's.
None of that really mattered now. India were desperate for a partnership. Their scoring rate had dwindled considerably, but there was no quick-fix. Saha, at any rate, wasn't looking for one. He got off the mark on the fifth ball he faced, and waited until his 33rd ball to score his next runs. In that early phase of his innings, Jason Holder - against whom he scored no runs off 22 balls - did not bowl outside off stump as he has mostly done through this series but on and around it, his line a constant but his length never predictable, making Saha play as much as possible.
There was one iffy leave that could have resulted in a wicket another day - the ball came in to hit his front pad, and ball-tracking suggested it may have hit off stump - but Saha was otherwise secure, the most impressive feature of his play the lateness - and closeness to his body - of his defensive play, particularly against the odd ball that jumped at him.
Early on the second day, Saha produced a superlative example of this against Shannon Gabriel. The ball reared uncomfortably at him, but he seemed to have a little extra moment to adjust, get on top of the bounce and drop his bottom hand upon impact. It rolled away harmlessly into the leg side.
By now, he had gone past fifty, and was in tune with the pace - slower than day one - and bounce, still generous, of the pitch. By now, he was in the third distinct phase of his innings.
The first two phases had come on the first afternoon, fetching him 12 runs in his first 71 balls and 34 off his next 51, a bulk of them against the second new ball. His last two scoring shots before stumps had been boundaries, a flick and a straight drive off successive Holder deliveries. Now, at the start of day two, Saha was retrenching; he scored only 10 runs off the first 42 balls of the day, and India only 21 in their first 13 overs. West Indies, as they had done ever since the second Test at Sabina Park, were bowling with control, with discipline.
They had an ally in the slowest outfield in a series of slow outfields. Ashwin, who had scored 48.79% of his Test runs in boundaries before this match, had only hit four fours in 227 balls. He was batting on 83, and Saha on 56. At that point came the first drinks break of the day, and perhaps India decided then that Saha would shift gears.
Off only the second ball he faced after drinks, Saha steered a wide, full ball from Alzarri Joseph, a ball he may have left alone before the break, to the point boundary. A couple of overs later, he slog-swept Roston Chase over midwicket. Chase had bowled - and been allowed to bowl, by India's situation - with no one on the square boundary on the leg side for most of his 24 overs till that point. The partnership had taken India out of trouble and perhaps to parity, and this shot seemed to signal a shift in the balance of play.
Saha has made a number of attacking hundreds in the Ranji Trophy, but he hadn't, before this, had any real opportunity to showcase his range of shots in Test cricket. Now he had his chance. He became willing to whip balls off the stumps and into the leg side, even if it meant meeting them with a closed bat-face. One such whip, off Miguel Cummins, went over the fielder at square leg and ran away for four. Then came a pull, and a couple of drives through the off side, one along the ground, squarer off Gabriel, and the other in the air, straighter off Kraigg Brathwaite's offspin.
As Ashwin inched towards his hundred at the other end, Saha threatened to overtake him. At lunch, they were batting on 99 and 93 respectively.
Ashwin got to the mark first, doing so for the fourth time in his career. Then it was Saha's turn, and this was his first time. He drove Chase against the turn, ran two, and paused, kneeling by the pitch, to undo his helmet strap, before rising to take it all in. He was 31 years and 291 days old, playing the 14th Test match of a six-and-a-half-year career mostly spent as an understudy to a wicketkeeping great. He was here now, this was his moment.
Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo