For a man who hardly spoke much – even his wife has said in the past that his inexpressiveness of sadness or joy is the only thing she would like to “cut marks for”, Wriddhiman Saha has caused a storm in the wake of his non-selection for Sri Lanka Tests. Befittingly, with as few words as possible by merely restating facts about who said what to him – from Chetan Sharma to Sourav Ganguly to Rahul Dravid, and above all, by tweeting a text message from a journalist that told its own story. Never before in his career has he been discussed as much by the public; now he is part of memes and Gifs to nail down what’s wrong with the system. Who would have thought Saha, the quiet unobtrusive man who shuffled behind the stumps with impressive stealthiness, would become the poster boy to bring down a few egos.
The start, though, couldn’t have been more sudden. Rohit Sharma tripped during warm-up before the start of the 2010 Nagpur Test and had to wait for his Test debut for nearly four more years. The man over whose foot Rohit had tripped, Saha, found himself facing a red-hot Dale Steyn in the unlikeliest of circumstances: a second-choice back-up wicketkeeper making his Test debut as a specialist batsman at No. 7, because there were no actual specialist batsmen left in the squad to choose from. He left his third ball; it reversed in late to crash into the off stump.
The then 25-year old Saha had learned what would become the defining lesson of his career the hard way: the need to be ever-ready, irrespective of circumstances. He had been thrown in at the deep end, without any warning at all, when all he had been ready for was a poolside view. Ever since, he has always prepared for a game assuming he would be in the playing XI. Even though he has spent a large chunk of his career on the bench.
He waited for Deep Dasgupta during his early days for Bengal. He waited for MS Dhoni during his prime years for India. And then, even as the then captain Virat Kohli called him the best wicketkeeper in the world, he waited for home Tests and pink-ball Tests because Rishabh Pant had first dibs elsewhere. Stoic is an understatement for almost an entire career spent in readiness knowing the norm was that you weren’t required. It is perhaps apt to call it a state of Wriddhiness.
All along, until the very end – and he has been told by head coach and chief selector that it is actually the end – there was barely ever a question of fitness or performance if he was available. How could there be, from a man who came back from shoulder surgery at 34 and dove upon resuming training to fall on the same shoulder? Diving was instinctive for the keeper who had started as a goalkeeper, and Saha wasn’t going to restrain that instinct in order to survive a little longer as a lesser version of himself.
Those leaps of perfection, parallel to the ground, body absolutely horizontal from head to toe, and gloves somehow dead-still amid that burst of motion, until they opened and shut at the right instant to gobble the ball. Of course, there is much more to remember, and that itself says a lot for how an unobtrusive man practised an art that is said to be performed best when it goes unnoticed.
Surely it must have happened – he operated in India mostly after all – but one can’t straightaway recall the dying ball troubling Saha. He would neither attempt to hurriedly fall forward to try and take it on the half-volley, nor jerk his head away in what is a perfectly acceptable reflex reaction to avoid a hit from a potentially awkward bounce. He would go down sideways on the left knee, open up the right leg as the second line of defence, keep the gloves vertical and almost touching the grass, and calmly let the ball sail in. Maybe it is memory playing tricks, maybe it is the effect his absolute command over the job had, but he could also have been chatting up first slip while doing all this. It was stretching the unobtrusive towards the performative, but remaining well within limits.
The spinner and the batsman know the ball will turn on a wearing pitch in India, but neither can say with certainty how much. The keeper’s vision is blocked by the batsman, so he has lesser input to work with. But as the raging ball spat past the pads on turners, Saha would arrive behind the line down the leg side, having precisely judged the length of the sidestep that was needed.
As it is with the best keepers, Saha just knew. He knew when to get up, when to stay low, when to let the gloves ride the bounce. And he was also aware enough to spring to action and go flying to silly point or short leg if they were vacant and a chance arose.
Not that he was only good against spin. He is the rare Indian keeper who side-shuffled nimbly to his right and gathered the ball on his left against the pacers. Traditionally, it’s the Australian way; the English preferred to have their bodies behind the ball in case posthumous swing prevalent in their country tricked them. Saha had no such doubts.
It is a cliche partly because it is often thrown around loosely, but it can be safely said without such danger that Saha was born to keep wicket.
It was something Indian cricket was wise enough to acknowledge early in an era where keeper-batsman was replaced by batsman-keeper, a change led in the country by Saha’s great predecessor. But Saha was so far out in front of the rest as keeper that his 13 first-class hundreds didn’t suffer in comparison to Dinesh Karthik (28), Parthiv Patel (27) and Naman Ojha (22). And mind you, all three competitors began their careers much before Saha did.
The fact that he could fight a good fight with the bat when called upon also strengthened his cause. That was visible right after that debut duck in Nagpur, when, in the second innings, he resisted an attack comprising Steyn, Morne Morkel, Wayne Parnell and Jacques Kallis for two and a half hours.
But perceptions can cut both ways. So set was the image of Saha as the Test keeper that he played only nine ODIs despite having a better List A batting average than Karthik, Patel and Ojha, all three of whom played all three formats for the country.
Saha probably made a better case for T20Is — without getting even one match — with a swifter strike-rate in the shortest format than Patel and Ojha, and just behind Karthik (133) at 130. Even now, Saha has as many T20 centuries as Pant has, and the latter is yet to make one in an IPL final.
The first of Saha’s three Test centuries came from a position of 126 for 5 in St Lucia, where he and R Ashwin revived India to a total of 353. That was in 2016, the middle year among the three best ones of Saha’s career immediately following Dhoni’s Test retirement at the end of 2014. He would be out injured for nearly two years after the South Africa tour in early 2018 and Pant would establish himself firmly as the future as well as the present.
Still, Saha would remain true to his primary vocation and never tried to morph into some other role. He was chosen as specialist pink-ball keeper for the 2020-21 Australia tour and didn’t concede a single bye in 93 overs in the Adelaide day-night Test. Earlier in 2020, during the pandemic lockdown, he had tweeted a video of him practising on his home terrace. He’d throw a ball into a corner; it would bounce off one wall onto another, or it would hit the intersection, and come back at different angles. Saha would collect everything.
He turned 37 last October. Weeks later, KS Bharat made an impressive entry as substitute behind the stumps in Kanpur. Weeks thereafter, Pant went past Saha’s 104 dismissals in Johannesburg. Time was up, but unless you are Sachin Tendulkar, there are no perfect goodbyes in Indian cricket.
In keeping – pun intended – with the nature of the man, drama had surrounded the handling of Saha’s injury and its communication by the board in 2018, and there’s been noise now over his phasing out. Because when it came to matters on the field, over 40 Tests spread across 12 years, there was never a question of fitness or performance. We might have seen the last of the pure keepers in Indian cricket, and he brought nothing but pure joy to a diminishing art.