Saha: A waiter who now makes others wait!

It’s interesting that Wriddhiman Saha has been persevered with. Where a majority of countries has chosen to go the way of the bat, India’s think-tank has privileged the gloves: they’ve chosen the best ’keeper, trusting, perhaps even hoping, the runs will come.

Wriddhiman Saha... unobtrusively efficient as a wicket-keeper.   -  K. BHAGYA PRAKASH

Though Saha is more in the team for his 'keeping skills, he has also kept the team management happy with handy contributions with the willow. not so long ago, he scored his maiden Test hundred, in the Caribbean.   -  AP

Mahendra Singh Dhoni's stumping skills, even when he was a Test wicketkeeper and such chances didn't come often, have not yet been matched by Saha.   -  K. R. DEEPAK

Wicketkeepers are waiters — by nurture, if not always nature. The role’s very essence decrees as much: the ’keeper must wait his turn, till first the bowler and then the batsman have done their bit; he is not permitted to touch the ball before that.

What’s more, the job reinforces this state of being. It favours the incumbent — possession is nine-tenths of the law, and so when a ’keeper takes up residence in a side, the rivals trying to oust him must bide their time.

While some rail against this, Wriddhiman Saha looks a man entirely at ease with waiting. His First Class debut for Bengal was deferred until Deep Dasgupta went to the Indian Cricket League. And as M. S. Dhoni’s understudy in the Indian squad — a slight-shouldered, slim-waisted presence amidst brighter stars — Saha played a mere three Tests in nearly five years, the first of them as an emergency batting stand-in.

In this peripheral squad life occur a thousand deaths — of hope, ambition, confidence, even sharpness. When the chance does come, there is often too little to win, too much to lose. Dinesh Karthik and Parthiv Patel, for instance, played themselves out of the reckoning. They shelled catches when they were called up, Karthik in Sri Lanka in 2008 and in New Zealand in 2010, Parthiv in Sri Lanka in 2008. Worse, neither made enough runs. Considering that both were perceived as better batsmen than glovemen, this was especially costly.

Saha, though, has endured. Every time he auditioned, his work behind the stumps had an orderly, unobtrusive excellence about it. His work in front suggested a certain stickability. Following the Boxing Day Test of 2014, he has replaced Dhoni about as well as can be expected — he brings different things to the table — and finds himself the one consigning others to the waiting.

It’s also interesting that Saha has been persevered with. Where a majority of countries has chosen to go the way of the bat, India’s think-tank has privileged the gloves: they’ve chosen the best ’keeper, trusting, perhaps even hoping, the runs will come.

The reasons teams select the better batsman over the better ’keeper — indeed sometimes even convince a batsman to take up ’keeping — aren’t difficult to divine. Teams are forever chasing balance. And with the scarcity of genuine all-rounders, it is the wicketkeeper’s spot that captains and coaches eye. Certainly, R. Ashwin’s success with the bat has played a part in Saha’s tenure. But to put it down completely to that would be to short-sell what is a rare, refreshing instance of discernment.

Only a few value the creative, wicket-making potential of elite ’keepers. Sometimes it’s vividly predatory. Dhoni’s mastery, for example, lay in the split-second stumping, gloves not withdrawn to ‘give’ with the ball, but almost moved forward to cut time. His game-sense and instinct for a batsman’s body-shape and balance allowed him to anticipate like no other; his ability to stay in the moment, the mind neither mired in the past nor skipping ahead, had him fully ready. But if it weren’t for his shoulders, his arms and, especially, his hands, which made subtle, hairsbreadth adjustments — a physical dexterity given to few — the act will have remained unfinished.

Often, however, a top ’keeper’s output is less apparent. Saha himself hasn’t Dhoni’s flicker-fast stumping skill. His technique to spin is far more conventional. There is one concession to the individual’s natural quirk: he lifts from his crouch just a beat quicker than the bounce of the ball, but he is able to get back down swifter than most. He takes the ball later and with more open gloves than Dhoni, both of which make the collection safer, but take up vital fractions of seconds.

So in terms of manufacturing chances when standing up to the wickets, it’s not the line-ball stumping, but the pop-up off bat and pad that Saha appears to have the greatest facility for. If either silly-point or short-leg isn’t stationed, he is happy to have a punt and see if he can make the distance, on his feet and in the air if needed.

In most other cases, however, he keeps it simple. Not for Saha the often ill-conceived cunning that those with a less secure method attempt, in compensation. Edges close to the bat are seldom regulation; every catch up to the stumps is a triumph of concentration and repeatable technique, body and eye trained to follow the line till the very end without flinching; with bats swishing around, obstructing vision, and balls reacting differently off different parts of the pitch-surface, this is easier said than done. It says everything about the surety of Saha’s work that unless it’s a particularly thick edge, the ball sinks into his gloves.

Saha’s ’keeping to the quicks looks a departure from tradition — he doesn’t begin in a crouch — but it is, if anything, at least as sound and definitely more efficient. The crouch standing back is merely a means to an end. The half-crouch — or the ‘power position’, as it’s known in the wicketkeeping community — is the truth. Here the hamstrings engage, the weight is on the balls of the feet and the ’keeper can move powerfully sideways. Saha, who begins in this posture, covers the most lateral distance of any Indian ’keeper of the last 25 years. Dhoni, such an adept to spin, had his troubles against pace — with the wobbling ball in England and with nicks between him and first slip, particularly to his right. His perpetually bruised fingers, which he soldiered on with, played a part, but so did his limited footwork.

With Saha, India’s slip cordon can spread wider too — one of the little things a ’keeper’s quality can add to a side that often goes unnoticed. Indeed, a part of the reason a ‘keeper’s worth isn’t always fully appreciated is the difficulty in measuring his influence. His effect on his bowlers’ and fielders’ morale, or on the opposition batsmen’s confidence, can be experienced, but not estimated. The true worth of a ’keeper is elusive to pin down statistically as well.

Even in baseball, a pioneer in analytics and measurement, the space behind the batter is only just beginning to be understood. Given the subjective nature of the ‘strike’, two pitches that travel identical paths on their way to the plate can look appreciably different the way they are caught, especially at the edges of the strike-zone. One looks a ‘strike’, the other an average ball. Certain highly skilled catchers are better able to create this illusion of a ‘strike’. They ‘frame the pitch’ — a term which ranks among baseball’s most evocative. It’s a skill that statisticians have isolated recently, concluding that it is more consistent than some of the most reliable offensive metrics teams are built on.

In cricket, on the other hand, something as reasonable as percentage of chances taken isn’t easily available. Dropped catches are sometimes remembered, especially if the batsman goes on to a punishing score. But mostly all drops are smoothened under the same comb, with little regard to the level of difficulty. Saha’s two misses of Ben Stokes in Rajkot — the first time his glovemanship came under scrutiny — were conspicuously different.

They were both illustrations of the difficulties in ’keeping to sharp pace in Indian conditions. The ’keeper has to stand closer and therefore has to be more explosive faster. Timing and rhythm are particularly challenging to achieve as well: for one, the carry isn’t consistent, and for another, the seamers tend towards straighter lines, attacking the pads and the stumps, so there isn’t a steady stream of balls to take. The first Saha spill was a half-chance: at that pace, one-handed, low and stretched that wide, forming the glove just right so the ball sticks isn’t consistently possible. He appeared late on the second and couldn’t get himself poised quickly enough to seal his gloves together, but it was catchable. Maybe the fact that both were to his left, his weaker side, caused them to be grouped together, but it did him a disservice.

Every ’keeper misses chances, however; what separates them is the number and their reaction. The best are able to make a speedy inventory of what went wrong and refocus on the ball. Saha’s performance after the drops, both in Rajkot and early in Visakhapatnam (where he managed a Dhoniesque flick-on for a run-out), suggested he had coped. The question though is how he’ll be judged if the runs dry up; will he be afforded far fewer mistakes than someone seen as a better batsman?

The century in the West Indies and the pair of unbeaten 50s against New Zealand at home certainly bought him time. But he remains a rarity in world cricket: Quinton de Kock, Jonny Bairstow, Sarfraz Ahmed and B-J. Watling are heavier contributors with the bat. The modern-day captain prefers the currency of runs to wickets — to him the risk of having a ’keeper who can just get by with the gloves is more manageable than the risk of having one who can just get by with the bat.

But fortunately for Saha, Virat Kohli appears an exception; his remark that bowlers were the bosses in Test cricket was significant for a nation obsessed with batsmen. Kohli has also looked to ease the expectations of runs on Saha, using Ashwin at No. 6 when five bowlers are played. Perhaps good things do come to those who wait.