Wriddhiman Saha behind the stumps: acrobatic, safe, alert and able to fly - all at the same time
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The long waits of Wriddhiman Saha

For India's wicketkeeper, life has been about biding his time endlessly, being always ready for the opportunity that comes without warning

Sidharth Monga  |  

Koley Market near Sealdah railway station in central Kolkata is a wholesale market for vegetables and fruit. The chaos of the train station meets the chaos of the market and multiplies. Like most such Indian markets, it is dirty, dingy and extremely crowded.

An old dilapidated residential building here houses a number of boys and young men who come from the rest of Bengal to pursue their sporting dream in Kolkata. For some, the journey to five-star hotels around the world, with their memory-foam mattresses, lavish breakfast buffets and swimming pools begins in this place, with its shared beds in basic rooms and common bathrooms. Accommodation is cheap, overheads are minimal. The location is central: a quick bus ride to the famed maidans of Kolkata. In the last two years or so of the last century, a shy, lean kid from Siliguri, a town in the far north of West Bengal, in the foothills of the Himalayas, would often forego the bus ride and walk 40 minutes to Eden Gardens and the surrounding maidans. With the money saved, he and his friends would go watch movies.

Now, if he wants to, Wriddhiman Saha can afford to have exclusive screenings and be driven to them in luxury cars, but those remain the best movies he has ever watched. Those remain the best days of his life.

The administrative office of the Kalighat Club is in Koley Market. One of the club's patrons, Bablu Koley, a former secretary of the Cricket Association of Bengal, was responsible for getting Saha set up in the old building in the market. Saha's room was on the fourth floor. Seven boys shared three single beds put together. The bathrooms were on the ground floor. The first seeds of fitness, and perhaps discipline, were sown there.

During the series against South Africa this year, Virat Kohli described Saha as the best wicketkeeper in the world

During the series against South Africa this year, Virat Kohli described Saha as the best wicketkeeper in the world William West / © AFP/Getty Images

That feeling of having exhausted yourself playing your sport, of being so tired that you didn't care where you lay down at night, is what Saha keeps trying to replicate even now, as a Test wicketkeeper who stands out for his keeping more than for his batting. To the extent that his batting, good enough for three Test centuries, a Man-of-the-Match award for batting alone, and a century in an IPL final, hardly ever gets talked about.

When young Saha, about 14 years old, moved to Kolkata, he knew no one there. No relatives, no friends. Friendships were built at the clubs and at the house in Koley Market. The move was a tough decision to make for the Saha family. His mother and his older brother, Anirban, wanted him to stay back and study, but his father had a dream.

A goalkeeper during football season, a wicketkeeper when the cricket was on, Prasanta Saha was a sportsman of some renown in Siliguri. People tell Wriddhiman that Prasanta was twice as fit as him when he was young. Back in his day, Prasanta had an offer to play club football in Kolkata but he didn't know where he would get the money to pay for a place to stay. He had to stay back in Siliguri and take up a job. He didn't want to see another dream meet the same fate.

The dream began during the 1992 World Cup. The three males in the Saha household would wake up early for the matches in New Zealand and Australia. Prasanta and Anirban would fall asleep after shutting off the alarm, but Wriddhiman would keep watching. Ian Healy was his first idol, but he already had the wicketkeeping gene.

He began as a goalkeeper in football and a medium-fast bowler and hard-hitting batsman in tennis-ball cricket. From every tournament he would come back with the award for the best fielder. At around the age of 12 he joined a coaching camp that had five to six wicketkeepers. One day when they were all absent, the coach, Jayanta Bhowmick, asked Saha if he would keep. The idea was to preserve balls because there was a concrete wall not too far from the stumps. Anyone who could keep the ball from hitting the wall would have done. Saha was a bonus: he took a lot of catches, and stopped a few balls by diving. He began to enjoy it.

Play 03:22

Wriddhiman Saha answers 25 questions

Prasanta asked his son if he was still enjoying it three days later. He was. So he bought him a pair of black-and-green BDM wicketkeeping gloves. Saha remembers those gloves in fine detail because he used them for close to six years. They were a memory of his father when alone in Kolkata.

Saha picked up the rudiments of wicketkeeping from his father and Bhowmick, who was not a wicketkeeper. Get up with the ball, move sideways with it, watch it till the end, catch it with soft hands. The rest he learned watching TV. He became a bit of a star in his home town. Teams started to hire him for one-off games. He won jumpers in tennis-ball matches. His first income from cricket was Rs 500 from a cricket-ball match when he was around 13. He gave the money to his mother.

By this time Saha had begun to outgrow Siliguri. He made the big decision to move to Kolkata, where he started out playing districts cricket. Most meals came at club messes, tired nights were spent in the building in Koley Market. His father would send him spending money, and Saha would send all his earnings back home. Wicketkeeping remained his prime focus, though he loved batting, especially the hitting part of it.

Bengal trials at Under-16 level didn't bring him success. Bhowmick, who had played a fair bit of league cricket in Kolkata, got Saha a chance with Kumartuli Institute, a first-division club. He never had to play second-division cricket in Kolkata. In his first season at Kumartuli, Saha played six matches and batted at No. 10. At an U-19 selection trial, a couple of years after the U-16 snub, the selectors asked him how many runs he had scored in the season. "Twenty," he said. "Five-hundred twenty or six-hundred twenty?" they asked. "Just 20," Saha replied.

Girish TS / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd

Having focused more on his keeping than his batting, it might have seemed like Saha was behind the times when those selectors laughed at his runs tally. But that period in his life proved to be preparation for the future: he would have to wait and wait for an opportunity at every level, in a field where time is at a premium.

He managed to get into the Bengal U-19 side because Bablu Koley, a watcher of that scene, requested the selectors to not go by Saha's numbers with the bat. Koley was vindicated when Kiran More watched Saha in an U-19 match and spoke highly of his technique.

However, Saha spent the next few years on the fringes of the Bengal team, for whom Deep Dasgupta was doing a fine job as a wicketkeeper. Saha would travel with the team for away matches and be released for the home ones.

Most of his cricket around then came in the Kolkata first-division league. From Kumartuli he moved to Calcutta Customs, from there to Shyambazar, and then to his current club, Mohun Bagan. It was at Shyambazar that a long-haired wicketkeeper from the neighbouring state of Jharkhand showed up as a gun for hire in 2005. Saha got to hang on to his wicketkeeping gloves because it was MS Dhoni's hitting that the club was after. Both players opened in the 50-over P Sen tournament. In his first match, Dhoni scored a double-century, in his second, a hundred. In both, Saha supported him with fifties. Little did he know then that their paths would be intertwined for the rest of their careers. And he would always be second fiddle.

The Indian Cricket League took Dasgupta away, and on Bengal debut Saha scored a hundred. It was too late in the larger scheme of things. By then Dhoni had won India the T20 World Cup as captain; the Test captaincy would be a natural progression.

Saha was thrown in at the deep end on his debut and his first-innings dismissal against Dale Steyn came swiftly

Saha was thrown in at the deep end on his debut and his first-innings dismissal against Dale Steyn came swiftly © Hindustan Times/Getty Images

Saha did what he could. His wicketkeeping was talked of with awe. In a match in Baroda, a batsman played a forward defensive - the ball hit the pad and was on its way down when Saha caught it. In an U-22 match he flew to his left and caught a proper flick down the leg side. The Bengal quick bowlers will tell you of several dives in front to catch dying edges on slow, low pitches. However, it wasn't enough to go past Dhoni, under whom India soon reached the No. 1 Test ranking.

In 2010, Dhoni was in the middle of a typical impasse with the selectors. He had his own way of protesting: not arguing or complaining, but by not picking a player imposed on him for the XI. This time, the selectors gave him only six batsmen in a squad of 15 for home Tests against South Africa.

In the lead-up to the Nagpur Test, VVS Laxman fell ill. Rohit Sharma was called up at the last moment. Teams play fun games to warm up before they start cricketing activity. On this day their warm-up with the rocket ball was done, and Dhoni had already gone off to put his blazer on for the toss when mental-conditioning coach Paddy Upton threw the rocket ball in the general direction of Sharma and Saha. In trying to catch it, Sharma tripped over Saha's foot, injuring his own left foot. With no other batsman in the squad, Saha was thrown in.

Years before, Dhoni had entered Saha's territory at Shyambazar. Saha had kept wicket then. This time, Dhoni wore the big gloves. It was his territory, and rightfully so: Saha had had no preparation - he had been told a day previously he wasn't playing and was asked to practise with the extra bowlers. He looked out of sorts against Dale Steyn, who had in his hand a replaced ball that began to reverse without any need for ball management.

Saha enjoys a good rapport with R Ashwin. The two partnered for a double-century stand in St Lucia three years ago

Saha enjoys a good rapport with R Ashwin. The two partnered for a double-century stand in St Lucia three years ago © Associated Press

Saha learnt perhaps the most important lesson of his career in that match. He was part of a set-up where he would spend more time on the bench than in the XI, but his chances to be in the XI would come without warning or time for preparation. So he began to prepare for every Test as if he was playing in it. The intensity of the drills, the mental state - he had to be switched on till the captain announced the line-up at the toss and Saha knew for sure either way.

At keeping drills he wouldn't wear pads because he wanted to replicate match pressure; if you miss a ball, there have to be serious consequences. He wanted to spend as much time keeping to the main bowlers as possible. To develop soft hands, he would catch balls blind - when watching TV, when talking to someone, he would throw the ball up and catch it without looking at it. It is easy to have the basics right when there is nothing riding on it, but if you haven't practised enough, in matches, the forearms can tense up, or you can go hard at the ball. So all his practice was under match-like pressure.

Watch how the left legs of many non-Indian wicketkeepers move early in a reflex when keeping to offspinners. Saha has to keep wicket to perhaps the most deceptive offspinner of this era. He practised and practised until he began to move only once the offbreak had started to turn. It takes a lot of training to leave it so late and then be quick enough with the movement. With the drift that R Ashwin gets, and given his many variations, which can't all be picked from the hand, Saha prides himself in not getting beaten on the outside. The two share great respect for each other's skill, and a good rapport on and off the field. They once won India a Test with a 213-run stand from 126 for 5 against West Indies. Saha knows Ashwin's plans to different batsmen as well as Ashwin does. He knows exactly when Ashwin is going to try a variation.

With Ravindra Jadeja, the challenge arises when the pitches begin to rag. Otherwise Jadeja is a keeper's dream because of his accuracy and control. Once, in Bangalore, Saha noticed Matt Renshaw was leaving the crease every second or third ball of a Jadeja over. He told Jadeja to fire the second ball of the next over down the leg side. Jadeja did it with accuracy. Renshaw was stumped. That Test was a turning point for the young India side: they came within a session of surrendering the Border-Gavaskar Trophy and recovered.

Saha's second Test came two years after his first, when Dhoni was banned for an over-rate offence. The one after that took nearly another three years; this time, Dhoni was injured. In between, Saha spent IPLs as an occasional fielder-batsman for Chennai Super Kings.

Girish TS / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd

It would be easy for him to be resentful of Dhoni, but the two have a healthy respect for each other. "He doesn't talk much," Saha says. "He believes in letting his work speak. I am the same. In the three years I spent at Chennai, he would share his experience of keeping on different surfaces. We would discuss the evolution of wicketkeeping."

Saha is in awe of the way Dhoni effects stumpings without any follow-through when collecting the ball. He makes a great observation that tells you of the genius of the older man: Dhoni doesn't collect the ball that way, without follow-through, all the time. Only when a stumping is in play do his hands go back in preparation for collection, so as to be in forward motion by the time the ball arrives. "He must be seeing the future," Saha says.

The future for Saha remained the same for a long time: he was in the queue behind Dhoni, who never had a dip in form. Saha spent years 25 to 30, a cricketer's prime, when he is at the height of his game and conditioning, and accumulates experience to see himself through the 30s, waiting for a chance. Five years is a lot of Tests to be preparing as though you might be playing the next game. It can be exhausting.

After the MCG Test in 2014-15, Dhoni gathered everyone when they had packed up and were getting ready to board the bus. They all thought he was joking, but Dhoni was dead serious. A few minutes before, he was addressing the end-of-match press conference as India captain, rebuffing an analogy that India's tail was Doberman-like to Australia's Hanuman-like tail.

He might be a Test specialist but Saha enjoys the role of T20 hitter

He might be a Test specialist but Saha enjoys the role of T20 hitter Dibyangshu Sarkar / © AFP/Getty Images

"He told us this team will stay together for a long time, and that it is our duty to take Indian Test cricket forward," Saha remembers of Dhoni's retirement announcement.

At the age of 31, Saha could now finally look at an uninterrupted run of Test matches for India.

Years 2015, 2016 and 2017 were great, not just in Tests but in the IPL too. In 2018, Saha injured a hamstring in South Africa. One injury was followed by another. Just before the tour of England he was told he could risk going there without an operation for a shoulder injury only if it was the last tour of his career. At 33, Saha was in no mood to make it his last tour. So instead of going to England, where he desperately wanted to test himself, he went to the operation table. In his absence, Rishabh Pant did what no other Indian wicketkeeper had done: score hundreds in England and Australia. Thirty-four-year old wicketkeepers rarely make comebacks when their replacement has done so well.

Saha, though, kept working. He spent hardly any time at home, instead going through rehab at the National Cricket Academy in Bangalore, following every instruction. When he came home, his daughter Avni would ask him when he was leaving, so brief were his stays.

When Saha came back to cricket, he asked the doctors if he could dive. The doctors said there was no guarantee landing on the shoulder wouldn't injure it again. When he began training, those words mattered little. Instinctively he dived. The shoulder hurt. It would stay tight for three days. Three days later, he would dive again. Then baby the shoulder for three days. Then dive again. Slowly he reduced the interval to two days. Then one. Then he began to dive every day.

The Saha method:

The Saha method: "When I am practising, I prepare as if I am playing the next match. If I get the chance, great; if I don't, prepare similarly for the next match" © Hindustan Times/Getty Images

All this while, Saha says what fuelled him was cricket, not selection. It didn't matter to him if he played for India again. He wanted to exhaust himself again. Get through proper training sessions and not care about where he lay at night.

I meet Saha in a rented apartment in South City, Kolkata at the end of October this year. His own apartment is being renovated and customised. He has made a successful comeback to the Test side, taking some awesome catches to vindicate captain Virat Kohli's assertion that he is the best pure wicketkeeper in the world. But I ask him about all the time he spent waiting at every level, the lonely time spent in Bangalore even as Pant piled on the runs, the frustration at the unfairness of it all. I refuse to believe you can have had the kind of career that Saha has had and not be anxious about selection.

"I have always been like this," Saha says of the lack of frustration. "Let's say you tell me you want to tell me something important but don't actually tell me. I won't probe you. I will get on with what I am doing. So when I am practising, I prepare as if I am playing the next match. If I get the chance, great; if I don't, prepare similarly for the next match."

I ask Saha where he gets his attitude from. He looks towards his wife, Romi, for an answer; to him, this seems to be the first time someone has said his attitude is unusual. Romi says that is how she has always known him to be: in his own world, never anxious, never impatient. It must be great for her, I say, to have a partner like that. "No," she says, "It is a problem. I have to think for myself and for him too."

Saha's team-mates will tell you he is one of the more relaxed players going around. He loves sleeping so much that he almost never has breakfast at the hotel buffet. There's a general calm around him. "I don't think too much," he says. "Like, we have the Bangladesh series coming up. Everybody is messaging me about the pink ball. I haven't even thought about it. It is too far in the future. Right now I have to go to Bangalore for seven-eight days. I will think of training only. Then I will go to Indore, and then I will start thinking of the Tests."

I tell him a sportsman's career is brief. As he gets older, any time spent out must concern him more? "No, I don't feel that way," he says. "I just try to be fit so I can play for as long as possible. Doesn't matter where I play. Even when I was injured I kept working on my fitness. It wasn't as if I said I will resume training only after recovering."

Has nothing changed since the year and a half he spent outside with the shoulder injury? Nothing, except that where Saha's hotel room used to be PlayStation Central, where everybody would descend before they went and changed in their own rooms, Pant's room now holds that distinction. Other than that, in the West Indies, Saha still trained as if he was playing, knowing fully well that Pant had earned first dibs.

What is it about training that keeps him happy? "If I have had a good workout session, I feel today I have done something. I have been like that since childhood." I ask if he has any expectations in terms of achievements, not reaching which will be a disappointment for him. He says he doesn't think that way. Nor does he think of his legacy, or of how he wants to be perceived in the history of Indian cricket.

We get onto a tangent that illustrates this mindset better. Saha's batting in the IPL has surprised a few, but not himself. He says he might be a Test specialist but he has enjoyed playing the shorter versions more because he loves batting at a high strike rate. For a player such as him it has to be natural to have ambitions to play T20I cricket for India, but the queue there is even longer. And Saha scores most of his big runs in domestic and IPL cricket at the top of the order, which is a no-entry zone in the Indian line-up. I ask him if he has thought of batting in the middle order for Bengal to present a case for himself, given how India still don't have a fixed wicketkeeper or a middle order in T20Is.

"No, when I play for Bengal, it is about what the team needs from me, not what I need to do to play for India. If they need me to open, I open. If they need me to bat in the middle, I bat in the middle. Selection is for later."

With his wife after East Zone's Duleep Trophy win in 2012

With his wife after East Zone's Duleep Trophy win in 2012 Vipin Kumar / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd

"What if the selection never happens in the format that you enjoy the most?"

"Nothing. I will be the same."

I left with curiosity still not doused. To be part of a winning Indian team is not for normal people. Just to get there you need to be self-absorbed to the point of narcissism. Then to maintain that spot, to deal with the insecurities that come with time spent on the outer, you need a sense of self-preservation. In an elite sport, with extreme competition for spots, as is the case in India, that is not necessarily a negative quality. In fact, it is a must-have: if you can't convince yourself of your heightened self-importance, how will you compete against others who think they are the best in the world?

Saha is the exact opposite but still a champion, still the best in the world at what he does. Yet he is content with what he has - and he has very little of what he could have had. There is nothing around him that might make him change this state of contentment. Romi is happy to take care of the mundane stuff in his life to let him do what he loves. Avni has set her father, a man whose fitness other cricketers in India swear by, a fitness goal of getting a body like the actor Tiger Shroff's. The other day Saha was at a Shoppers Stop and he overheard a salesman tell another, "Look, Wriddhiman Saha." He can't be, the other said. He isn't dressed like a star. There is a blissful lack of self-awareness with everything around Saha.

These thoughts in mind, I walked into the Birla Planetarium, in the general vicinity of the maidans in Kolkata where Saha used to come and play every day as a kid and exhaust himself completely. The presentation of the day "Cosmic Collisions", reinforced, with all its 3D brilliance, the vastness of the universe and the relative insignificance of much of human endeavour. I came out reminded of the words of the great astronomer Carl Sagan.

"Our posturings, our self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light," Sagan wrote in A Pale Blue Dot. The "point of pale light" is an image of Earth taken by Voyager 1 when it was about 6.4 billion kilometres away. In the image, Earth is just a tiny speck in a vast cosmic field. The only speck known to support life, and each life for a limited period.

Saha is making the most of his limited period, doing what he loves: playing his sport, exhausting himself doing it, and not bothering about the rest.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo

 

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