Almost towards the fag-end of the final session of the third Test in Ranchi on Monday, former Indian wicketkeeper Deep Dasgupta was heard explaining from the commentary box the difference in the wicketkeeping technique of Wriddhiman Saha and Rishabh Pant as Ravichandran Ashwin bowled on a turning top. Since taking over the wicketkeeping spot for Team India in Tests with his dual overseas centuries, Pant has been compared with Wriddhiman for his position. And Day 3 was one such unlikely day when the differences were clearly visible after the veteran had left the field with a thumb injury and later explained by Deep on a technical level. A few deliveries later, a vicious off-spin from Ravindra Jadeja beat the inside edge of Kagiso Rabada and Pant, who isn't equipped enough to gather that, could only stand and see the ball whizz over his gloves past the slip for a four. And suddenly the commentary box went abuzz about Wriddhiman. Wicketkeeping is one of the least noticed aspects of cricket, unless such errors. Wriddhiman rarely makes such errors, and hence he is such a valued keeper.
Rarely does a wicketkeeper manage to hog limelight in a Test series until carving out a gritty half-century or notching up a triple-figure mark. But Wriddhiman was among the big talking points heading into the Test series against South Africa and was the star performer from the second Test in Pune (besides Virat Kohli’s career-best 254*).
On day three of the second Test, Umesh Yadav delivered a back of the length ball, placing it well outside off to Theunis de Bruyn. The batsman went hard at the ball only to produce a thick outside edge and Saha dived across to pluck it in front of the first slip. On the next morning, De Bruyn got a thick edge to a slanting delivery down leg side assuming it to comfortably embrace the boundary ropes behind, but Saha threw himself across to gobble the ball with his left gloves. The two catches remained the talking point of the second Test despite India's massive and record-breaking win. It was a testament to why he's arguably the best in the business.
Later on Sunday, CricViz released a stat stating that Wriddhiman has completed 96.9 per cent of catches successfully since 2017, the best number by a 'keeper ahead of ninth-placed Pant (91.6). And ahead of the series, they had rated his fielding ability as +5.7, the most again (since 2017), implying that Wriddhiman saves India 5.7 runs per match while Pant's ability is - 1.5.
"I need to give him a treat because I think those two wickets are Wriddhi bhai's only," Umesh told the broadcasters at the end of the second Test. "When you put the ball outside leg stump you think it'll be a boundary, but if there is a little bit of a chance to convert a catch, we know he will take it."
A session later, Wriddhiman left everyone in awe of his skills. A slightest of inside edge, a brush against the thigh pads after Faf du Plessis pressed across to block. Wriddhiman stayed low, juggled once, twice, thrice while leaning forward before finally grabbing it with a forward dive. You don't see such catches so often, and it's only because he has got such great reflexes which has done wonders for him. He tends to follow that ball like an eagle ready to pounce and hence shows the rare ability to react to the movement in fraction of a second.
"It's a no-brainer to say that Saha is one of the best going around, and I've hardly seen him miss anything," Ashwin said during the second Test. "Even from the rough today, for Jaddu, as you saw today, the ball that Rabada [tried to] cover drive. Those are all just indications showing how good a keeper [he is], and what good set of hands he's got. And Saha's obviously got great composure too, and you can't really rule him out with the bat either. He's had some really handy contributions for the team, so he's a great character and a great keeper to have in the side."
But while many seemed relieved at Wriddhiman getting the long-due opportunity in the South Africa series, many had even questioned his position as against Pant who has emerged as a batsman-wicketkeeper in his absence, averaging 44.35 in 11 Tests with centuries in England and Australia. Wriddhiman held a Test average of just 30.63 ahead of the series.
Believe it or not, Wriddhiman had made his Test debut as a batsman in place of Rohit Sharma's injury and had scored his maiden ton in West Indies in 2016 while walking it at 126 for five. Few months later, he won the Man of the Match award for his valiant fifties on a challenging Kolkata track against New Zealand. And in Ranchi, three years back, he scored another century against a Pat Cummins-led Australian attack when India were 328 for six while chasing the total of 451. He has indeed been among the major contributors for the lower-order alongside Jadeja and Ashwin.
But despite his batting numbers compared to Pant, the management preferred the veteran solely for his ability to keep on turning tracks. However, the management also needs to provide him that confidence with the bat. He has batted only twice in the series scoring 21 and 24 in situations when India required him to play aggressively. The management in fact promoted Jadeja ahead of Wriddhiman under situations when they required bigger totals. He was never out of form in the three years that he held the responsibility after MS Dhoni’s retirement in the format. But if management holds the notion of continuing with Bengal-based ‘keeper even for overseas tracks, he needs to be given that confidence. After all, it’s only fair. Besides, Wriddhiman is 35 and is competing for the spot against a 22-year-old.