When Wriddhiman Saha wakes up on Monday, he will feel a lumpy red scar on the right side of his chest, where he was shellacked by a brutish Pat Cummins short ball. But instead of pain, he will feel grim satisfaction. He will show it like a rare stamp of courage, and wear it like a pendant of understated bravado.
He would also fondly recollect another occasion which involved his chest. That was against South Africa in Mohali, when he was behind the stumps. On a minefield strip, Ashwin’s ball spat past Hashim Amla’s outstretched defensive prod and struck his chest, before it bounced off and fell on the stumps. The South African skipper’s backfoot was stranded outside the crease, and thus was nipped a fightback by Amla and AB de Villiers. Saha, hitherto petulant and careworn due to the incessant scrutiny of critics, felt a wave of positivity. The impact, then, was softer, coming as it did from an off-spinner.
But this was different, and hence even more precious. This was a steaming Cummins bowling upwards of 90mph. It must have, metaphorically, exploded onto his body like a hand grenade. Saha didn’t flinch, or blink — that Cummins reviewed for a caught-behind, maybe, afforded him some time to realign his thought process. The next delivery, he stooped low to douse a fiery yorker. A mini-battle won in a war. There were several such skirmishes he won before accomplishing his third Test hundred, which he unreluctantly says is his best effort till date. When Saha says it was his best, you have to believe him, and not perceive it as an immediacy-influenced rating. After all, he had placed a resolute 35 in Adelaide above his century in an IPL final — he has always given precedence to the context and the quality of the opposition and the format of the game.
His finest innings
Then, even without Saha’s approval, you could establish that this was his finest knock. If the St Lucia hundred was about his comeuppance, and the Hyderabad ton about his assertiveness, the Ranchi-walla smacked of his tenacity, and thus his often undervalued indispensability. To think his long-term place in the side seemed uncertain when he was injured amid whispers of his replacement Parthiv Patel’s finesse with the bat confounds us. It’s not that Patel is an inferior batsman but just that Saha is a superior batsman, not maybe in terms of batting’s aesthetic charms, but surely in terms of his ability to churn out important runs, the zest to hang in, run the ugly runs and then the know-how to counterpunch. That said, if you’d seen his cover drives, you wouldn’t feel he is an altogether unappealing batsman.
While he might not be the most gifted batsman — a reason perhaps the more eye-catching Ashwin get precedence over him — he certainly transcends the limitations of his batting. Like when he’s bouncer-barraged, a trick the Australian pacers insisted against him. He can, at times, be caught off guard, because his back-foot stride is short. But he has worked around this deficiency by swaying his body as much away from the direction of the ball as he could, dropping his wrists, and sometimes even fending off his chest. He has also curbed the tendency to swipe outside the off-stump, which he does by pulling away so late and so pronouncedly that you feel he’s going to imperil the wicketkeeper’s jaws.
But the most noticeable transformation about his batting is that it now breathes an air of freedom. Not long ago, he suggested an impression that he was inhibited, that something was pinning him down. All he needed was the balm of reassurance.”Initially when I came into the Test team, I played my go-to shots like the sweep and lofted shots hesitantly, but now I am 100 per cent confident. The team, the captain and the coaches are all fully behind me,” he said.
Also there is a sharp, and growing, ability to read the match situation. He can alternate between shop-shutting and freewheeling, depending on the situation. For example, even if his motif was to survive and support Pujara, occasionally, he would unsettle the spinner by stepping down, or take a short premeditated front-foot stride to punch the faster men.
But most of all, it’s his sheer courage that sets his apart from his contemporary ilk of wicketkeeper-batsmen. The scars are a reminder of that.
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