There are probably days when Wriddhiman Saha goes to sleep wondering if he could have done anything differently. And Sunday was one such day. The Indian squad that will take on Sri Lanka was announced and the wicketkeeper from Bengal was missing. Rishabh Pant was the first-choice, as he has been, and KS Bharat had replaced Saha in the squad.
Most will tell you Saha is a brilliant wicket-keeper, the best in the country even, and a consummate team-man. The kind of guy you’d want in your corner in a brawl. The kind of guy who’d have your back. But now he is out of the team with virtually no chance of a comeback.
So, should he have done anything differently? Could he have done anything differently?
At the end of the South Africa tour, head coach Rahul Dravid – as we now know from both parties – told Saha that with the Indian team looking at the future. For sake of transparency and clarity. But, from the player’s point of view, how hard must it be to have a rethink about their career at 37 and all you want to do is play for the national team?
In a way, fate has never been Saha’s ally. His best years were spent looking in from the outside. The MS Dhoni era was in full swing and no one else was getting in.
So Saha waited, perfecting his art further. Soft hands and brilliant footwork behind the stumps set him apart from everyone else. They still do.
As the old-timers would watch him play, they would start talking about Rajinder Goel, who despite taking 750 first-class wickets and being listed among Sunil Gavaskar’s idols, never played for India because a certain Bishan Singh Bedi was ahead of him.
Those of a different vintage would talk about KP Bhaskar. The Delhi middle-order batsman scored 5,443 first-class runs at an average of 52.8 but never played for India.
Closer still, we have the case of Amol Muzumdar – who despite scoring 11,667 runs at an average of 48.1, and yet never played for India. The Indian middle-order was water-tight in his time.
There are so many other players who came close; there are so many who perhaps deserved at least a chance but for them, it was not to be. From that perspective, Saha still had a lot more going for him.
He eventually made his Test debut in 2010 (but not as a wicketkeeper). His next Test appearance came in 2012. Then, with Dhoni deciding to step away, he finally got a run in the team. Between the Sydney Test in 2015 and January 2018, he played 29 Tests, averaging 32.87 ( three centuries included) with the bat, taking 71 catches, and completing 10 stumpings. He was 31 when he started to get that run of matches as India’s first-choice. At that point in his career, he was too good to be old. He had earned his moment. These were solid numbers and some of his catches had fans drawing a cape on him.
He acquired a cult following quickly. The fans loved his no-nonsense approach and he made wicket-keeping look like an art form, especially on turners. Commentators wouldn’t stop talking about how he stayed down for as long as possible; how he read the bowler and how he rarely ever seemed disturbed by the uneven nature of the surface.
Dismissmals as designated wicketkeeper
A hamstring injury in 2018, during the tour of South Africa derailed him. He also complained of shoulder pain and then a reported misdiagnosis at the National Cricket Academy kept him out of the picture for almost 18 months.
And in those 18 months, starting with the England tour, Rishabh Pant made solid strides. The youngster from Delhi made everyone sit up and take notice of his batting but his keeping was a work in progress. It still is perhaps but sometimes, being out in the middle is the best place to learn. You have nowhere to hide.
As Pant got better, the management took the call that he was the first choice in ‘away’ Tests and Saha for the ‘turners’ at home. Saha also got to start the series Down Under in 2020-’21.
But youngsters tend to jump up levels and with Pant doing that, it soon became clear that there was no way the team was going to look to Saha if Pant is fit.
“With Rishabh Pant having established himself as our No. 1 choice wicketkeeper, the idea was to say that we were looking to groom a younger wicketkeeper with only three Test matches this year and that was it,” Dravid said about his conversation with Saha.
“The easiest thing for me is to not have these conversations, but that’s not who I am. That’s not what I’m going to do. I don’t expect them to like it or like me, but at some stage, I hope they will at least respect the fact that I will be able to front up and have these conversations with them.”
Dravid added: “I have deep respect for Wridhhiman Saha and his achievements, his contribution to Indian cricket. My conversation with him actually came from that place. I think he deserved honesty and he deserved clarity. These are conversations I constantly have with players. I don’t expect players to always like messages or to agree with everything that I have to say about them. That’s not how it works.”
The message, in a way, was on the wall. It was there for Saha to see. The communication was clear. To be fair, it doesn’t surprise anyone but it does cut deep. Perhaps, it is just the nature of team sport, where you can go from too good to be old, to too old to be good. The biggest legends never seem to get old and can stay around for almost as long as they want. Almost everyone else gets pushed out – sometimes for no fault of theirs; sometimes simply by the rising tide of youth.
At 37, Saha is still very fit and he can either accept what Dravid had to say to him or simply fight to show that age should have nothing to do with the argument. The ball isn’t exactly in his gloves at the moment but a great IPL outing and perhaps another go in the domestic circuit, could yet change that.