Wriddhiman Saha’s splendid game-changing 54 in his first game at home city didn’t get the local support it deserved. The Eden Gardens was sparsely populated and even his wife Debrati and daughter Anvi weren’t present to see his best innings in international cricket.
The absence of family, though, was due to a superstition: his wife doesn’t see him bat live. However, every morning she has been dropping in at the team hotel with a lunchbox packed with home-cooked food. The contents aren’t known but it surely has worked for Saha in this Test.
Watching the game was the new chief selector MSK Prasad, himself a wicketkeeper-batsman, and when he was intercepted by the reporters at the club house lobby during the two-and-half hour rain break, he was effusive in his praise of Saha.
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After an elongated period of scepticism, accolades are now flying in thick and fast. Saha is a level-headed enough to not to let praise get to his head; he never took criticisms personally or sweated over it too much either. Circumstances have forced Saha to become a master of the waiting game. In 2008, the then India selector Raja Venkat had informed his colleagues about Saha’s keeping ability. The five-member panel watched the Bengal cricketer and unanimously agreed that he was a notch above the rest, including MS Dhoni. The latter, however, was one of a kind – a complete package, keeper, batting marauder and captain cool. And he was in his pomp.
So Saha had to wait till 2010 to make his Test debut – as a specialist batsman after Rohit Sharma’s injury ahead of the toss had opened up a vacancy. Saha played the Test knowing full well that he would be dropped in the next; performance notwithstanding. His full-time initiation to Test cricket happened only after Dhoni’s retirement from the longest format in December 2014.
This game is Saha’s first international fixture at his home venue after 16 Tests. If there were any nerves, he didn’t show it. There has been some recent criticism about his batting and the diminutive 31-year-old waited to prove his critics wrong. The 104 on a sluggish track at Gros Islet in West Indies was a match-winning effort and had provided him some breathing time in international cricket. From his personal point of view, it helped him cement his place in the team. India had slumped to 126/5 then, together with R Ashwin (118), he had to mount the recovery.
The half-century here in Kolkata was an upgrade to that effort. By his own admission, he never played on such an (unpredictable) Eden pitch. And given the quality of New Zealand bowling, it has to be his best innings in international cricket yet.
Bailing the team out
Here also, his job was to bail the team out of trouble from 231/7. But his approach was different. He was aggressive from the onset. Anything in the range had been dealt with severity. In fact, Saha was pretty quick to change his approach after being initially targeted with the short ball. He took one on the rib-cage on Friday evening, and unsure about the nature of the surface he decided to attack. The second ball of the morning was hit for a four through covers as he leaned into an overpitched delivery from Trent Boult. The Kiwis tried to soften him up with bouncers and though Saha took a blow on his left elbow , he didn’t even call the physio. Next ball, he opened his bat face to guide a Matt Henry outswinger to the third man boundary.
The Kiwis turned to spin and the left-arm spinner Mitchell Santner tried to induce some mistakes by tossing up the ball. Saha came down the track and played inside-out over the covers for four, and soon with a four and a six against the same bowler, he reached his half-century. More importantly, it also brought up India’s 300 – the total his side had been looking for.
Two partnerships prompted India’s fight back – 41 for the eighth wicket between Saha and Ravindra Jadeja, where the latter’s contribution was 14, and 35 for the last wicket, with Mohammed Shami, too, scoring 14. India finished at 316 all out in their first innings, riding on Saha’s uncharacteristic aggression.
“The ball was moving a bit, so the idea was to make full use of the run-scoring opportunities. To get to 300 we had to do that, otherwise it would have been difficult to go past 260. On a surface like this, where the ball can behave awkwardly, you want to capitalise the loose deliveries,” Saha would say later. His unassuming nature prevented him from rating his first Test half-century at Eden. “Everyone appreciated it. But I’m happy for the team that we reached a respectable total”. The days of waiting are hopefully over for Saha – waiting for recognition, waiting for opportunity, waiting for acknowledgement.