Wriddhiman Saha is gradually beating his competitors to establish himself as the No 2 to Mahendra Singh Dhoni. His efforts behind and in front of the stumps in the ongoing India A tour of the West Indies has done him a world of good. Nishad Pai Vaidya looks at the critical No 2 wicket-keeping spot.
The race for India’s wicket-keeping spot was like a game of musical chairs in the early 2000s as many arrived and disappeared from the scene in quick time. All that changed when a man with long-locks donned the gloves and showed the ability to tear apart bowling attacks. Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s arrival was met with great enthusiasm as here was a man who could keep wickets and be destructive with the bat as well. His meteoric rise established him himself as India’s first-choice keeper in all formats – ahead of Dinesh Karthik and Parthiv Patel.
With India’s packed schedule and Dhoni playing most of the games, the questions surrounding his back-up always remained, with Karthik as the preferred second choice. Off late, Wriddhiman Saha has clearly nosed ahead. His latest appearance was in the Adelaide Test, which he played following a one-Test ban on Dhoni the captain.
With fears of Dhoni retiring in the not-so-distant future, a strong No 2 ‘keeper is the need of the hour. Dhoni said that he would give up “one format” in 2013 if he has to play in the next World Cup. It isn’t an express indication that he would quit Test cricket, but is nevertheless implied. Dhoni’s record and success in the limited-overs arena is far superior compared to that in the classical format and it is unlikely he would forsake them. Test cricket would be the most convenient sacrificial option with an eye on the 2015 World Cup.
On his unexpected Test debut two years ago, Saha had to play as a specialist batsman - which didn’t give him the opportunity to showcase his real role at the highest level. At Adelaide, he literally grabbed the chance with both hands and impressed everybody with his efforts behind the wickets. He looked balanced, collecting most deliveries in the classical manner at the waist. In contrast, Dhoni has been guilty of standing too far behind, which has often resulted him taking the ball on the first bounce and even losing the opportunity to convert some into catches.
As a batsman, Saha showed steely resolve in the Test, sticking it out in the middle and rebuilding India’s innings in the first essay. His head looked nice and still as he played most deliveries with the straight bat. Even on his Test debut against South Africa, he had shown similar abilities – although it largely went unnoticed. In First-Class cricket, Saha maintains a healthy average and has been consistent almost every season since his debut in 2007-08.
The only player who might challenge Saha’s position is Dinesh Karthik, the Tamil Nadu stumper. Parthiv Patel doesn’t seem to be in the race as far as far as the Test squad is concerned. Despite a good performance in the domestic season, Karthik wasn’t picked for the India A side for the Caribbean and Saha made the cut.
WV Raman, who has watched both Saha and Karthik from close quarters as current and past coach of Bengal and Tamil Nadu respectively,told CricketCountry, “I am under the impression that Saha is rated as a far superior keeper and hence he was chosen for West Indies. In the last couple of years, the selectors have reposed their faith in Saha after giving Karthik a long run.”
Ironically, Dhoni replaced Karthik in Test cricket in the year 2005. Although Karthik got a longish run in the side as a batsman, he always remained on the sidelines as a back-up to Dhoni.
Karthik had been very prolific during the Ranji Trophy for his side Tamil Nadu. While leading his team’s charge, he has amassed three centuries and has been involved in 21 dismissals. Even as his team stuttered during the all-important final, he held firm to score 150 in vain. This season, too, he has displayed his class with the bat.
When it comes to wicket-keeping, Karthik is a natural mover with athletic reflexes. Whenever he has played purely as a batsman, he has been brilliant as a fielder. Even when he got the opportunity to don the gloves in the Indian colours, he was clean.
In his last few international games, mostly One-Day Internationals (ODIs), Karthik played mainly as a batsman and put in a few good performances. In
the Asia Cup final of 2010, he was named the man-of-the match and was selected for India’s next ODI series. However, his form declined and hasn’t got a call since from the selectors. It’s his batting that has mainly cost him his place in the side. His return to form is a good sign for Indian cricket and the selectors.
The arguments in favour of Karthik strengthen when one considers his adaptability. He can be used as a floater in the batting line-up and is also a very useful opener in any format. His exploits on India’s tour of England in 2007 bear testimony to this fact as he countered alien conditions with ease. He opened the batting and got India off to good starts on a number of occasions. His batting can be described as combative; he is always looking to take the attack to the opposition. He has good footwork and a balanced head - something that helped him in England. The fact that he got runs in England while opening the batting speaks volumes of his technique and aptitude with the bat.
Raman opines: “As far as talent is concerned, Karthik has the advantage, but Saha has raised the bar and has contributed consistently and significantly for all the teams he has played. This has negated Karthik's advantage.”
The competition between Saha and Karthik would heat up in domestic cricket and it would all boil down to performances with the bat.
As Raman explained, “It will boil down to current form and also whether the selectors are looking at a specialist keeper who can contribute lower down the order or whether they want a batsman who can keep a bit.”
In what has otherwise been an ongoing disappointing India A tour of the Caribbean, Saha is one of the few successes. Coach Lalchand Rajput would undoubtedly have good words to say about the young keeper in his report to the Indian cricket board which, in turn, will have a bearing on the selectors when they meet to pick Indian teams in the months ahead. Saha impressed Rajput scoring two fifties in difficult batting conditions and keeping impressively on uncertain pitches.
(Nishad Pai Vaidya is a club-level cricketer with an analytic mind and a sharp eye. It was this sharpness which spotted a wrong replay in IPL4 resulting in Sachin Tendulkar’s dismissal. Some of his analytical pieces have come in for high praise from cerebral former cricketers. Nishad can also be followed on Twitter)