At 32, Naman Ojha is no greenhorn. He made his first-class debut in April 2001, just a year after MS Dhoni first turned up for his then state-side Bihar. Incidentally, Ojha was picked as the frontline wicket-keeper opener when India A toured Kenya in 2004, where Dhoni only played the second of the two three-day matches, and that too as a specialist batsman. Their careers though couldn’t have gone in more contrasting directions from that point on.
Dhoni would play 90 Tests, lead the country in 60 of them, and retire in December 2014. Ojha, meanwhile, would remain vying for that wicket-keeper spot in the ‘A’ team. Almost as consolation, he would also appear in three ODIs and two T20s in Zimbabwe in 2010, barely making much of an impression.
Then eight months after Dhoni’s dramatic decision to walk away from the longer format, Ojha has arrived in Colombo as a stop-gap for the injured incumbent, Wriddhiman Saha, primed for a Test debut. But again it could well be his one-shot at glory with the team management having expressed their support for Saha as their long-term choice, and him having reposed that trust with a half-century each in Galle and the P Sara Oval.
Ojha looked in good touch in the nets, having recently appeared for India A against Australia A in Chennai. Once done, he exchanged a few words with selectors, Vikram Rathour and Syed Saba Karim, who were in attendance at the SSC on Wednesday. He then was put through a strenuous drill under the hot, unrelenting sun by fielding coach R Sridhar for close to half-hour.
Tall and athletically-built, the Madhya Pradesh wicket-keeper went through a golden run last year where he scored three centuries in four innings — including a 219 not out — during the Emerging Players tournament Down Under, his overall average reading a gargantuan 430. But on either side of that miraculous run, Ojha has remained an outsider in the race to become Dhoni’s immediate replacement. Since the time he turned up for MP as a 17-year-old, he’s seen everyone from Parthiv Patel to Dinesh Karthik make their debuts, lose their way, win comebacks, and then fade away. And by the time he was hitting peak form, Saha had already played a handful of Tests and once and for all cemented himself as the heir to the wicket-keeping gloves.
No wonder he was a bundle of nerves during his maiden press conference as a potential India Test player. Asked whether his 84-ball 10 at Chepauk a few weeks ago—a knock that attracted more surprise than criticism—was part of some plan to develop a new facet to his otherwise flamboyant approach, Ojha interjected rather brusquely insisting that it was nothing of the sort.
“I don’t want to develop anything. Whatever I am I want to be same. Seniors told me to just spend some time so I was spending some time in the middle. But I think I spent too much time, usually I don’t,” he said amidst laughter in the press conference room.
It was almost like Ojha wanted to ensure that the reputation he’s managed to create over 14 long years in the domestic grind remains intact, especially two days out from his tryst with destiny.
“Waited very long, so just want to enjoy my game, and don’t think about anything,” Ojha then added. Those were the words of a man who’s waited in the wings with no opening in sight, before being thrown a lifeline, even if only a temporary one, just when it looked like the time had passed. No wonder he wants to enjoy every bit of it.
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