Wriddhiman Saha's five-year-old daughter Anvi is hovering around him as he speaks to ESPNcricinfo over the phone from his home in Kolkata. Saha has just returned from Bengaluru after another long stint at the National Cricket Academy (NCA), which had become his second home in 2018 after he suffered more than one injury, including a career-threatening one in the shoulder for which he eventually underwent surgery last August.
Having not seen her father for extended periods, Anvi, Saha tells us, is not letting him out of her sight. The wicketkeeper is not complaining. The happy times are back. On Thursday, Saha played his first competitive match in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy for Bengal.
Here, he chats about the challenges of 2018 and the willingness to work hard to regain his place as the first-choice wicketkeeper for India in Test cricket.
You must have counted the number of days you were away from active cricket?
Yes, it is about six-eight months easily, but when I returned to the ground I felt like I had never left. I just felt like I was only away for 15-20 days. When I entered the ground during my first training session with Bengal, I never felt I was out for seven-ten months. Usually after a long break, when you are batting in the nets, you feel your bat is not coming down well, your feet are not moving properly. But my body was feeling good, I was in good rhythm, and I assimilated quickly and easily with my team-mates. It feels good.
How hungry and desperate were you to return to the field?
I did not feel like that, to be honest. Once it was decided in July (2018) that I had to undergo surgery and the time frame was worked out - how long I would be away and how long rehab would take - I was okay. The doctors had pointed out that I would be away for minimum six months. The operation took place in August. After that, I went to the NCA. Rehab, training, strength work, running, skills work - whatever I did, I carried doing what I could without feeling that I am injured.
During IPL 2018, you injured your thumb. You had just recovered from the hamstring injury you picked up in South Africa. Was it frustrating?
The thumb fracture I picked in the IPL was on the right hand, so I could not do any weight training with my right hand. When I went to the NCA to recover from the thumb fracture, while doing normal training, I realised one day my right hand did not feel like earlier. The NCA physio carried out an MRI. He told me that the right shoulder had become worse (compared to after South Africa tour). Doctors in Mumbai and Bangalore were consulted. Everyone said surgery was the best solution. One of the doctors even said the other option was if I was going to retire in, say, a couple of months, I could play with injections.
"During rehab, I distracted myself by mingling with trainers, coaching staff and other players - talking things outside of my rehab and cricket. If you think rehab is boring then it can actually turn out to be boring."
So you did not take the injection?
After being advised by both the NCA phsyios and doctors, I took the injection in the first half of July, because I felt if it worked, I could play the Test series in England. But the right shoulder did not recover, leaving surgery as the only option. Finally, I underwent the operation on August 1. So my entire 2018 was full of injuries.
In South Africa, I injured the left hamstring tendon, which took me about a month-and-a-half to recover from. While I was at NCA doing rehab on the hamstring, I was feeling a little bit of a problem in my right shoulder. I was given an injection (around February first half) then and recovered completely from the shoulder injury. I was feeling better for the next three months and even played IPL till I got the thumb injury.
How long did you not lift the bat after the surgery in August?
I was advised complete rest for three weeks. Then I went to the NCA, where I started knocking for about two months, somewhere in October. There were restrictions especially with wicketkeeping, but I felt if I did not start training it will only mean I would recover late.
Were you scared?
No, no. If I was scared I wouldn't have dived. I started to dive about five months after the operation. Initially I would dive indoors on foam mats (pile of four to five). Gradually I became confident enough of doing full training - wicketkeeping and batting - outdoors. If I had hastened my recovery, I could have risked the injury resurfacing, which would have hampered my return once again. So I decided to become completely fit and only then return.
Can you talk about the difficulties of sitting out for such an extended period?
From childhood I have never been impatient. During the rehab, I made sure I did not think rehab was boring. I distracted myself by mingling with trainers, coaching staff and other players - talking about things outside of my rehab and cricket. If you think rehab is boring then it can actually turn out to be boring.
Still, it must have been challenging?
No doubt, but my mindset has always been to not think of the end result. I have always focused on the positives in everything I do, regardless of the result. So I did not let negative thoughts enter my mind. That is how I have come out of any difficult situation - both on and off the field. I feel some of my best innings with the bat have come in crunch situations.
"I was very happy when Rishabh scored his maiden Test century (at The Oval) and even sent him a message. Recently I met him at NCA. We exchanged notes about the England and Australia series."
Can I ask your wife, Romi, who was so worried about your playing future after you missed the England tour that she even tweeted on your behalf for support during your recovery.
Romi Saha: The was negativity surrounding his future in cricket and it was affecting me personally. People were talking about his tenure being over. At that point in time, it was useless talking about an international player in that fashion. He has come to the highest level without any support, so I felt it was too fast to comment on his future. I feared it may affect him, after all he is human. I know he is very strong mentally, but as a family we were devastated. Hence I sent out that tweet on behalf of Team Saha.
Were you scared in those months when he had the surgery?
Romi: I wanted to join him for the surgery in Manchester, but because the decision was taken at short notice, I couldn't get my visa. I was very scared because the injuries happened one after another. He was also doing well at that point.
So you put more pressure on him than us media?
Romi: I am always putting him under pressure (laughs).
Wriddhi, you last played for India in January 2018. You have since missed 14 Tests, and India have fielded Parthiv Patel, Dinesh Karthik and Rishabh Pant in the interim. How do you look at the sequence of events as you embark on a comeback?
In South Africa, Parthiv was my back-up. During the England tour, DK and Rishabh got opportunities. So there are four keepers in contention and each has been rotated. Now, Rishabh has grabbed the opportunity. The important thing for me is to do well in every tournament I play - in Syed Mushtaq Ali and then IPL. But [I want to] perform in those tournaments not because I want to make my India comeback. Of course, I want to come back to the Indian dressing room. Once I start doing well, the selectors can take the call whether I can earn my Test spot. I do not think too much. Just keep doing the good work and perform and then hope to get the call from the selectors.
So you're not taking your Test comeback for granted?
I have always believed in working hard. Even when Mahi bhai [MS Dhoni] was playing (in Tests) and I was the second wicketkeeper, my preparation was as if I was playing. I learned that quickly after my Test debut, where I was not actually prepared for the occasion. I don't think I will get back my Test spot aaram se. I have to focus on the process.
Are you then okay to be the No. 2 keeper after Pant?
There are so many Indians that play cricket. If you are picked in the 15, it is a proud moment for any player. I have not been in the Indian dressing room for one year, so if I get another opportunity, I will do anything to make a comeback. To get back, I have to perform well. Earlier I was No.1 wicketkeeper in the team. Now Rishabh is. My thinking is if you do well you need to get the chance.
As the senior glovesman, what are Pant's strengths as a wicketkeeper?
He has got the record for most dismissals recently, isn't it? Is it 11? No doubt he is good, but he still has room for improvement. He is young. The more he plays the better he will get. I was very happy when he scored his maiden Test century (at The Oval) and even sent him a message. Recently I met him at NCA when he had come there after the Australian tour. We exchanged notes about the England and Australia series. We spoke about collecting the wobbling Dukes in England which is a challenge. I have had some experience with India A previously. We also spoke about Australia.
You have a small, close-knit family. Romi mentioned the toughest time in the last year was you staying away from home for longer periods. How difficult was it on your daughter?
I used to feel really bad. I would come for a couple days having spent few weeks at NCA. The first thing Anvi would ask me is 'when are you going back (to NCA)?' Even now she asks me: 'Are you going to go back again?' It is very tough. We missed doing the normal family things: going out, going for a movie, to a restaurant. You were asking me my biggest challenge. It was not cricket. The challenge was I could not spend time with my family as much as I wanted in the last year.