Wriddhiman Saha: The Shadow keeper

Saha quietly worked on his game, never missed a club match, and has remained patient to finally become India’s No.1 keeper.

Written by Shamik Chakrabarty | Updated: June 7, 2015 12:39 pm
Indian Cricket Team, Indian Cricket, Cricket India, India vs bangladesh, bangladesh vs india, ind vs ban, ind vs ban 2015, india tour of bangladesh, Wriddhiman Saha, Wriddhiman Saha ipl, Wriddhiman saha India, India Wriddhiman Saha, Virat Kohli, MS Dhoni, Cricket, Cricket News The wait seems to be finally over for Saha. Things are now, finally, in his own control. (Source: File)

For years, all that Wriddhiman Saha could do was wait. Wait for Deep Dasgupta to make way, wait for MS Dhoni to step aside, wait for selectors to pick him and wait for fame and glory. It could have frustrated a lesser mortal but Saha is made of sterner stuff. Shamik Chakrabarty meets the man who quietly worked on his game, never missed a club match, developed his batting, and has remained patient to finally become India’s No.1 keeper.

Wriddhiman Saha trudged back to the pavilion. He had wanted to cut the ball up and over but had failed to clear the man at point. “I’ve to work hard to perfect that shot,” Saha would say later.

The May sun was stifling, the mercury hovered over 40 degrees, relative humidity soared over 80 percent and Jadavpur University’s Salt Lake Campus ground was like a cauldron. Even the stray dogs were slinking away into the shadows. Saha didn’t really need to be there at the club game, a P Sen Trophy fixture between Mohun Bagan and East Bengal, but try telling him that.

Even after a decade of club cricket, Saha prepares intensely for every local game. “I don’t think about international cricket when I’m playing a club game. I’m fully focused on the job at hand. Why shouldn’t I? This is where it all began.”

And this is where he would return to every year at the end of the Ranji season. As long as Mahendra Singh Dhoni was there in the Indian team, Saha didn’t have anywhere else to go. If he wasn’t used to waiting before, he learned all about it during the years Dhoni dazzled for India.

In fact, Saha’s early lessons about waiting began even before Dhoni. He had to wait for his Ranji debut as Deep Dasgupta was well entrenched as Bengal’s wicketkeeper. Saha’s chances came only after Dasgupta left for the now-defunct Indian Cricket League in 2007. Saha was 23 then. He threw himself into cricket, into every little club game he played, preferring to cherish what he has instead of longing about what might never come his way. The long wait to recognition had taught him not to pick and choose.

In Test cricket, he had been on the fringe until Dhoni decided to call it quits midway through the four-match series in Australia. Saha knew he couldn’t afford to get too frustrated or let the wait affect him. “What else I could have done? I had to wait for my opportunities. Now that I’m there, I must contribute,” Saha says.

His past suggests that he will ensure no opportunity goes wasted. On his first-class debut against Hyderabad, after years of waiting, he hit a sparkling unbeaten 111 and effected five dismissals behind the stumps. When Dasgupta returned to mainstream cricket, he had to play as a specialist batsman as his junior colleague had already established himself as the No. 1 wicketkeeper from the East Zone.

However, sitting under Dhoni’s shadow was a different issue altogether. Odd Test appearances notwithstanding, Saha knew he had to wait out as the understudy as long as the Big Cat was playing. It must have tested anyone’s temperament but his Ranji team-mates say Saha was made of sterner stuff. “He never got frustrated and kept himself on course,” says Sambaran Banerjee, the former Ranji Trophy-winning captain. “He has had supreme belief in his ability and excellent fitness. He was quietly confident he would eventually outlive Dhoni.”

Raja Venkat, who was a national selector when Saha made his Test debut against South Africa in 2010, concurs. “The best thing about him was that he never let his performance dip. Not easy when things were not going his way. We all knew Saha was India’s best in terms of keeping, about two levels better than Dhoni.”

It was his batting, though, that gave him his Test debut in Nagpur. Having made the XI after Rohit Sharma injured himself on the morning of the match, Saha got his chance on the third day. But like the rest of his team-mates he was swamped by Dale Steyn. Better batsmen than him struggled to read Steyn that day and Saha became the second batsman in that innings, after M Vijay, to lose his off stump after shouldering arms. He fought hard in the second innings and his 36 almost helped India avert an innings defeat, but he was the ninth wicket to fall as Steyn took him out again. This time around Saha was trapped lbw, unable to get his bat around the front leg in time.

In due course his second-innings fight was forgotten, just the memory of that duck lingered. “He heard everything but never reacted,” Raja Venkat says. “People had started to put his batting under the scanner and he just gave more time to his batting. Last season, he finished with 362 runs for Kings XI Punjab in the IPL and a 66-ball 115 in the final against Kolkata was the show stopper.”

***

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Growing up in Siliguri, cricket was Saha’s second choice. He had wanted to be an F1 driver but his family didn’t have the money for him to pursue that dream. PlayStation now makes up for his unfulfilled desire.

His father Prashanta played football and cricket in Siliguri leagues but didn’t have the financial wherewithal to pursue a sporting career in Kolkata, offers notwithstanding. A job in West Bengal State Electricity Board was the only source of income to support his wife Maitrayee and their two sons.

However, Prashanta never put any pressure on Saha to find a regular job and help him run the family. Even when Saha chose to give up his studies after appearing for the Part 1 exam, Maitrayee and Prashanta were supportive of his son’s sporting dreams. “My parents always backed me to the hilt. When I decided to give up my studies my father supported me. He’s my inspiration and role model,” Saha says.

He was a medium pacer in his tennis-ball days. It was with the leather ball that he first began to keep, rather asked to keep. There were five keepers at the Shaktigarh Cricket Coaching Centre, where he had enrolled himself with some of his friends to play some leather-ball cricket, but one day when the best of the wicketkeepers didn’t turn up, a coach asked Saha to do the job.

“Don’t know why they chose me. Maybe they thought I was agile enough,” he says. He proved to be a natural behind the stumps. “I never had to look after his keeping. I just did some fine-tuning,” says his coach Jayanta Bhowmick, who mother-henned the “young prodigy” at Agragami Sangha in Siliguri and later played a key role in sending him to Kolkata.

“I had an exciting group of kids — Saha, Debabrata Das, Parthasarathi Bhattacharya, Kamal Hasan Mondal…They all went on to play for Bengal. But very early during our association, I had realised Saha was special. It was a U-13 game against a local club. We were struggling after losing early wickets. Saha came, launched a spectacular counter-offensive and took us home with two overs to spare. He played straight, keeping the long-on and long-off fielders very busy. I knew I had a gem,” Bhowmick recounts.

Another incident, a few years down the line, allowed Bhowmick to reaffirm his views about Saha’s composure. “He had appeared for the Bengal U-19 trials and impressed the selectors. His selection became a formality. But Saha was down with a viral fever and had also injured his ankle ahead of the team selection. I called him to console but his response stunned me: ‘Don’t worry sir; I don’t think this is a lost opportunity. There’s always a second chance and I would be ready’. I realised I was dealing with someone who was matured beyond his age,” Bhowmick says.

His coach at Mohun Bagan, Palash Nandy, sees at least four-five years of unbroken Test stint. “He’s in a different league as a keeper. As for his batting, he has been improving steadily. And because he has his feet firmly planted on the ground, he will go from strength to strength.”

Nandy narrates a couple of incidents. “In 2011, he was at Chennai Super Kings and they won the IPL. We had a league fixture against East Bengal the day after the IPL final. Our secretary contacted Saha, knowing full well that it would be almost impossible for him to turn up. He took the first flight home and reached the ground directly from the airport.

“More recently, after returning from Australia, I had told him to take a break. But he arrived at the ground at 9am and happily performed the 12th-man’s duties. Very early into his career, when he was playing for the Shyambazar club, I realised he was special. It was about his attitude, the way he approached his task and sought perfection.”

***

The 30-year-old Saha now has a flat in South City Mall, drives swanky cars, but he has barely changed, attitude-wise. He is an intensely private person and doesn’t really socialise much. His elder brother Anirban, an engineer, is still his best friend. He met his wife Debarati on the social networking site Orkut and married in 2011 after a four-year courtship. Saha kept the marriage pretty low key. Less than 200 people were invited. Just family members and few close friends. “I am like that, I like to keep things private. I don’t express myself. If you want to know me, you have to make an approach.”

The couple has a two-year-old daughter, Anvi — her father’s “lucky mascot”. Saha describes his wife as “home minister” who now has the additional charge of running their food joint, Puran Dhaka. “She, along with three of my friends, runs the show. The restaurant serves delicacies from east Bengal. I’m a foodie and like Gujarati food items. My food joint, however, serves Bengali dishes. Come and taste our smoked hilsa. We’ve Mughlai on the menu as well,” Saha smiles.

He keeps his phone on silent at home and rarely takes calls or meets too many people at home. “I hardly get time to spend a few hours with my family. My home is for my family. If you want to see me, I would be available at any cricket ground in Kolkata!”

Not for long, though. If things go his way, he might be seen in the cricket grounds around the world and not just Kolkata. Those who know him say that he is a fiercely focussed man who will never quit. His batting is a proof of that trait. He wasn’t known for playing big shots once but in the last couple of IPLs he has been wielding the long handle pretty effectively. Virat Kohli, India’s Test captain, has been vocal about his admiration for Saha and has said that he would like to see Saha keep for India for the next five years.

The wait seems to be finally over for Saha. Things are now, finally, in his own control. It’s upto him to make or break his career from now on. It’s up to him to keep the likes of Dinesh Kartik, Naman Ojha and any younger keeper at bay for the next few years. He has waited long enough. This is his time under the sun.

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