Soon after making his Ranji Trophy debut for Bengal back in 2007, Saha established himself as the premier glovesman in Indian first class cricket. Moving naturally on his feet, anticipating well, at ease standing back to the quick men and at his best close to the stumps against the spinners, Saha was the most skilled and agile wicketkeeper since perhaps Nayan Mongia. And yet, despite making his Test debut in 2010, Saha would rack up just three Test matches in four years, when Mahendra Singh Dhoni announced his retirement from the longest format in Melbourne.
And in this period, Saha was no stripling serving an apprenticeship. An attacking batsman who routinely produced blinders at the top of the order in the Indian Premier League, and a versatile enough player to bed down and dig Bengal out of a hole when needed, Saha would not have been wrong in expecting to have played much more cricket by his 30th birthday.
If there is one manner in which Saha is a very un-Indian wicketkeeper, and a bit similar to Dhoni, it is in that he is largely quiet behind the stumps. Not for him the non-stop jabbering, the little barbs and jibes to unsettle batsmen or vociferous appealing at the merest sniff of a wicket. When the window did open up long enough, though, Saha delivered with telling contributions down the order, scoring 40, 47 and 104 in India’s 2-0 series win in the West Indies.
Building on this, Saha scored twin fifties in India’s win over New Zealand at the Eden Gardens, picking up his first Man of the Match award. Virat Kohli, who has been an out-and-out Saha backer, could barely restrain himself when speaking of his wicketkeeper. “Saha is the best wicketkeeper in the country right now and he’s doing a great job in Test cricket. That hundred in the West Indies really improved his confidence; he understands how to bat with the tail now,” said Kohli. “Saha is wonderful behind the stumps and can bat. He backs himself to play his shots.”
In the following series, against England, Saha injured himself in the second test match, as a result of which Parthiv Patel was drafted into the squad – an opportunity he grabbed eagerly both behind and in front of the stumps. It is a testament to the high regard in which he is held that Saha was brought straight back into the squad once he recovered, despite Patel’s Patel’s fine showing – and he promptly scored a second test hundred against Bangladesh.
It’s no wonder that Saha is one of the few permanent fixtures in Kohli’s ever-changing line-up. When it comes to batsmen or bowlers, Kohli is more than keen to use a horses for courses policy, so much so that he did not play the same XI in any of his first 17 Tests as captain. In that sense, Saha has quietly established himself as a symbol of continuity in the Test side, and indeed, is one of the first names to be pencilled into the team sheet when the eleven is chosen.
Despite finally establishing himself in the Indian scheme of things, Saha’s demeanour has undergone little or no change. While not introverted, Saha would rather keep his thoughts to himself most of the time and when asked about himself or his cricket this is even more the case. “To fill up Dhoni’s boots isn’t an easy task. He played for India for many years, and was a match-winner for India. I will try and reach my potential and help the team, with the bat in vital situations and by taking taking catches behind the stumps,” says Saha of the long time he spent waiting in the wings. “I feel good batting with the lower order because in that situation the team makes crucial 30-40-50 whatever runs, it is very helpful for the team.”
For the best part, wicketkeepers are like umpires. When they are doing their job properly, hardly anyone speaks about them. When they make a mistake, a dropped catch or a wrong decision in either case, everyone seems to have some advice on how things should have been done better. To do your job to a high standard day-in and day-out without expecting much reward and yet be ready to cop the brickbats when things don’t go your way requires a certain calmness of mind that Saha has in spades.
“I don’t think there has ever been any doubt about the quality of Saha’s work behind the stumps,” says Anil Kumble, India’s coach, a legspinner who knows the value of a safe keeper. “He has always been a hard-working cricketer and has performed with the bat in domestic cricket. It was a matter of translating that into runs at the highest level and the century in West Indies has given him that confidence. His temperament is something special.” Such a ringing endorsement from Kumble is rare. But Saha has certainly earned it.
(This article first appeared in Man’s World magazine.)