West Indies v India, 3rd Test, St Lucia, 2nd day August 10, 2016

Saha's patience pays off in maiden Test ton

More than six years after making his debut, Wriddhiman Saha's maiden Test century was an innings symbolic of the substance over style grafting that helped him earn his spot
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Manjrekar: Ashwin, Saha show depth in Indian team

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Unmesh on August 11, 2016, 18:54 GMT

    I have always liked Saha. I know IPL is 180 degree apart from Test cricket, but I first noticed Saha when he was playing under Ganguly in initial KKR days. He is a tough cookie. Ganguly's KKR team would almost always be in trouble in the first 10-12 overs with a few wickets down. This guy would not only steady the ship sensibly but would also take calculated risks when needed. This guy can bat under pressure (his Adailade mistake not withstanding). I am glad that he is making strides in Test cricket too. Good luck, Saha!

  • Ashok on August 11, 2016, 18:32 GMT

    Pujara was dropped for scoring 46 runs at a S/R of about 28. However his lifetime batting average is 47 at a S/R of just over 48. That was a cruel blow to be dropped when he shields the batsmen by blunting the bowling on a "Iffy" pitch. But India were in precarious position against lowly 7th ranked WI with a score of 126 for 5 when Saha & Ashwin batted in a similar manner to Pujara to rescue India from the bottom of the pit. They not only succeeded but each scored a Ton when the front line players like Dhawan, Kohli & Rohit got out for single digits. Test batting is for those who can bat patiently & their ability to survive followed by consolidation to improve their S/R when set. Pujara does this as did Saha & Ashwin. Rohit & Dhawan do not have the technique or defence to play patient innings let alone survive on a spicy wkt. Saha taught them a lesson in Test batting despite his low profile. Does Rohit Sharma have an ability to play 100 balls to be a Test class Batsman?

  • Indian on August 11, 2016, 18:24 GMT

    Saha's batting style might look ungainly but as article asserts it can be mighty effective and as @EMANCIATOR007 suggest IPL has enhanced his strokeplay .Ashwin might look quite elegant and stylish cover driving the ball but Saha has much more of a batting range plus ability to shift gears however as @SAMROY says Saha is already 32 and cannot be a long term option .

  • Sriram on August 11, 2016, 12:21 GMT

    Saha must have learnt a lot after that moment of madness in Adelaide! Although no blames, that could have changed Saha for ever. Kudos that management has stuck with him (although i cannot see any replacement to Saha in near future). It might be only against Windes (remmeber Ajay Ratra?) but he has played some gritty innings in his short career. At home he may get to face some quality bowling against NZ and England and if he does survive all that, will be able to show his capabilties overseas in NZ, SA, Eng and Aus before he signs off.

  • Indianbangali on August 11, 2016, 10:34 GMT

    Patient innings. Congrats.

  • Ravi Kiran on August 11, 2016, 9:05 GMT

    This is the first test 100 by an Indian wicket keeper outside sub-continent after May 2002. That shows how mediocre the batting of the Indian WK. This guys has technique and a 'see it hit it' freak, which is needed for test cricket. It actually tests someone's technique. Happy for him. Now Indian fans can say, we have a wicket keeper who can bat in Tests.

  • Soumya Das Gupta on August 11, 2016, 6:00 GMT

    Very composed and compact player and the same is his mindset. So much of calmness he brings to the table treasure to have someone like him in the team.

  • Make on August 11, 2016, 5:06 GMT

    As i said before in so many articles,this Saha is one of the toughest nut to crack...No.1 wicket-keeper batsmen in the world at the moment....

  • PALLAB on August 11, 2016, 4:51 GMT

    It was actually in Kohli's 1st Test as captain in Adelaide'14 that Saha showed what tenacity/grit is when he weathered an extremely hostile hot pace spell from Johnson/Harris in 1st innings competently-something which Dhoni never did with regularity away from Asia. Barring his 9 50s in Eng, Dhoni did not have notable knocks on hard bouncy tracks of SA/OZ in 17 Tests. Saha's batting base is actually orthodox (much like Bengal state predecessor Deep Dasgupta who cud grind it out as an opener) & accounts for his long staying powers at crease while not eking out too many runs. As with many players, IPL has expanded his repertoire & so helped him play his attacking range when the situation warranted in this innings. Very canny about his batting processes & most of his recent run-making has been away (SL, WI). Was in supreme form scoring big 100s in domestic cricket 3 years ago (when he was 28) but for looming presence of talismanic Dhoni cud not get to play Tests regularly.

  • Vatsa on August 11, 2016, 4:23 GMT

    Happy for Saha. A smart innings, when the top 5 failed, a tricky wicket, disciplined bowling and bad team selection. Wicketkeepers in India have a thankless job and for someone to succeed MSD, it's a huge task. Here's for more from Saha.

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