“For Saha, who has just dropped four tough catches in the last fifteen months, scrutiny and analysis to this level seem unfair. Long back, in 2008, when he was not even in the fray for an international spot and when Dhoni had sealed his spot as a keeper, Ricky Ponting had pin-pointed then that his Kolkata Knight Riders’ teammate was the best wicket-keeper that was present in the country”.
India vs South Africa, 2nd Test match at Centurion: Much had been spoken about Virat Kohli’s team selections for the second Test match at Centurion, which saw the first Test match’s hero Bhuvneshwar Kumar make way for Ishant Sharma and wicket-keeper Parthiv Patel coming in for Wriddhiman Saha. While the first move sent ripples of anger across the nation, the second one was almost welcomed. Yes, Saha had created history in the previous game when he snarled up 10 dismissals in the first Test match, but with the willow, he hardly inspired. An 8-ball duck in the first innings and a 19-ball 8 in the second had started murmurs of his continued ineffectiveness in front of the stumps.
For an already faltering Indian middle-order, it was almost a necessity that each player would be able to contribute with the bat. The bowlers contributed when the top-order couldn’t and when Saha failed, it was almost held in ransom. The dismissals of Cheteshwar Pujara and Rohit Sharma were conveniently overlooked but it was the Bengal keeper’s dismissal that hurt the most!
“Saha averages just 30.63 with the bat. We need someone better.”
Though a hamstring niggle kept him out of the second Test match, the adage “absence makes the heart fonder” unveiled itself out and as Parthiv failed to even go for an edge by Dean Elgar off the bowling of Jasprit Bumrah and started blaming Pujara at first slip instead for the missed opportunity in the 25th over of the second innings, silent prayers of “get well soon” had started doing the rounds.
India vs Australia, 1st Test match at Pune: After a tiring long day of Test cricket, when the shoulders had started to droop and the fielders were just going through the process, hoping to wrap things up and enjoy the comforts of the dressing room, Saha gave slight glimpses of exhaustion, flying in the air to pull off a spectacular catch mid-air. As Steve O’ Keefe edged a Umesh Yadav delivery towards an absent first slip, it was long expected that the delivery had gone for a boundary. With a huge gap between Kohli at second slip and the keeper, no one would have predicted the sight that lay ahead.
Saha flung towards his right, almost like Superman, and caught hold of a catch that unanimously put him in the league of the best wicket-keepers that ever played for their nation. It was awe-inspiring and jaw-dropping, to say the least!
But that hardly matters. Yes, the catches being picked up are fine but where are the runs? With three hundreds and five fifties in 32 innings, his lack of form in front of the wickets hardly goes unnoticed. The Test team relies primarily on wickets taken and runs scored, and it is but expected that fielders will take in some spectacular catches. But will it be fair to include a player in the final eleven only on his fielding?
In an age where T20 cricket has encouraged the role of all-rounders, it is hardly possible to see a team taking the field with a specialised keeper if he cannot time the ball well.
But what had happened when Robin Uthappa and KL Rahul turned out for their respective Indian Premier League franchises as batsmen who could barely keep wickets? They did set the stage ablaze with their batting but just as well, they made news about the easy catches that kept popping out of their gloves. On many occasions, the reprieved batsman was able to go on and score a match-winning innings and that one dropped catch proved to be the final straw between two equally-contested teams.
Saha is the best wicketkeeper for India in white clothes
But Test cricket is unlike the fast-paced moods of T20 cricket. Until the likes of Adam Gilchrist and Abraham Benjamin de Villiers burst into the scene, the role of a wicket-keeper had been relegated to just that. Naran Tamhane, Nana Joshi, Alan Knott, Rod Marsh and Godfrey Evans had all emerged into their international teams due to their quick reflexes and even quicker abilities to whip up the bails in a jiffy. There had been no questions asked and no arguments debated if they failed in their attempt to score the runs. Yes, it was a bonus but as long as the reason why they were in the team was being accomplished well, it hardly mattered. The batsmen had to score the runs; the bowlers pick up the wickets and well, the keeper had to convey the mood of the team to the opposition- by riling them up with words of encouragement to the bowlers and sneaky comments directed towards the rivals.
It had worked just fine. Mark Boucher is still regarded a might good wicket-keeper and no one bothered to glance at his average of 30.30 in Test match cricket. Yes, Kumar Sangakkara and Mahendra Singh Dhoni changed that trend but then imagine how many matches Pakistan would have won if a keeper-batsman like Kamran Akmal had not been in the side! Maybe they would have worked better with a player who did not spill as many catches, even if he hardly went past the figure of fifty consistently.
But if he is unable to contribute in more than one aspect of the game, what real importance does he hold?
Playing a match without a wicket-keeper could provide the ready answer but for once let us resort to facts instead. 540 squats a day on the field, 200 short sprints and 90 trots along with unwavering focus right from the time the bowler is on his run-up till the ball has been declared dead deserves much due credit.
The fielders can relax. The non-striker can relax, but the keeper needs to be at his most attentive best from the time the innings begins till it ends. He has to gauge the bowler’s intention from his wrist positions and move accordingly. He has to understand the batsman’s weaknesses and convey them to the bowler. Keeping to the spinners and to the faster bowlers require their own special skills and standing up close to the wickets, its own hazards. Remember the reason why Boucher had to cut short his international career?
The ball needs to be “received” and not “snatched”. The head should be in line with the ball and the palms should be ready to grasp onto any outside edge. He should move with the bounce of the ball. He should crouch fully to the seamers as it is easier to move upwards than downwards. On wickets with double bounce, he has to be even more alert than the batsman and an unwritten rule is that the taller keepers should almost always be crouched to lower the centre of gravity on offer.
Catches caught are cheered for but given more credit to the bowler. Spectacular catches are applauded but then his batting is dissected. And God forbid, if a catch is dropped, all talks tend to break loose.
For Saha, who has just dropped four tough catches in the last fifteen months, scrutiny and analysis to this level seem unfair. Long back, in 2008, when he was not even in the fray for an international spot and when Dhoni had sealed his spot as a keeper, Ricky Ponting had pin-pointed then that his Kolkata Knight Riders’ teammate was the best wicket-keeper that was present in the country.
A decade later, it still holds true but if only viewers can segregate his batting skills with his indispensable talent behind the stumps, can one truly observe the value that Saha brings to the team.