A wicketkeeper has performed well if he hasn’t come to anyone’s notice, they say. Wriddhiman Saha caught everyone’s eye for doing his regular job in extraordinary fashion. And his performance will assume heroic significance if one gets to know the pain he was under – both physically and mentally.
Playing his first Test match in almost a year, Wriddhiman Saha was out for 1 in the first innings in Kanpur, in very similar fashion to the dismissal in his last Test innings in Adelaide. And it was just the tip of the iceberg. The 37-year-old developed a stiff neck on the morning of Day 3 and had to sacrifice his wicketkeeping spot to substitute KS Bharat.
In an exclusive interview with Sportskeeda, Wriddhiman Saha revealed his wife was down with dengue at the time and that he had to arrange for her hospital admission simultaneously. Come Day 4, India’s plan was to get to safe waters so that Saha did not need to bat to prevent the risk of aggravating the injury.
But the hosts found themselves precariously placed at 103 for 6, just 152 runs ahead of New Zealand. Having taken painkillers for his stiff neck, apart from a mind cluttered with thoughts of his ailing wife and his own place in the side, Wriddhiman Saha walked out to bat at No. 8. He exited the ground unbeaten on 61 off 126, having helped the team set the Kiwis a challenging target of 284.
Wriddhiman Saha is reputed as a team man in cricketing circles, and if you speak to him, he uses the phrase “for the team” way too often. It would have been okay for him to feel insecure seeing KS Bharat deputise for him on Day 3 of the first Test and do exceedingly well. But Saha is of the opinion that Bharat stepped up for the team, even if it was at the expense of him.
Saha couldn’t don the gloves on Day 5 either. But he made up for everything in Mumbai. The Bengal-born lad showed exceptional glovework on a track that started turning square on the first day itself. So much so that the broadcasters panned their cameras on the unassuming man – on more than one occasion – while commentators were effusive in his praise.
It was only fitting that Saha whipped the bails off to stump Henry Nicholls as India registered a massive 372-run in Mumbai to win the series 1-0.
Onto the South Africa sojourn now. But despite winning both the series and countless hearts, Wriddhiman Saha might have to make way for the incumbent Rishabh Pant. Asked how does he deal with such frustrating predicaments, Saha replied, almost as a reflex, “Whatever the team decides, I will accept it”.
Excerpts from Wriddhiman Saha’s exclusive interview with Sportskeeda
Q. You played for India after almost a year, got your first half-century in four years, showed exceptional wicket-keeping skills, how do you feel personally?
Wriddhiman Saha: It was my first half-century in four years, but you have to see how many matches I played in those four years and how many innings I got to bat in. But yeah, I feel very happy that the team won and we won the series.
Q. Talking about the Kanpur Test, you were caught behind for 1 in the first innings, almost similar to how you were dismissed in Adelaide. So when you got back to the dressing room, did you regret not making optimum use of the opportunity?
Wriddhiman Saha: That everyone wants to get runs in every match, but it doesn’t happen always. But there’s always preparation and effort, same was in my case. I wanted to contribute to the team, and I have always put my team before individual performances.
Q. Substitute KS Bharat came out to keep wickets on Day 3 because you had a stiff neck. If you could please tell us how it happened?
Wriddhiman Saha: After completing all the warm-ups on Day 3 morning, I went to keep for the bowlers. There I suffered a sprain while trying to gather a delivery from Axar Patel. It was like a sudden muscle pull and I couldn’t move my neck. And it would have restricted my keeping, I could not have given my 100 percent, hence Bharat took the gloves.
Q. Injuries are part and parcel of sport. But do you sometimes feel insecure watching someone else deputise for you and do a solid job, especially after you have failed with the bat in the first innings?
Wriddhiman Saha: I won’t compare because he got an opportunity. In the Sydney Test in Australia, Rishabh had injured his hand and I had kept wickets. My thinking was, ‘He is doing it for the team because I am not able to’. I feel even he thought so and he actually did a good job – took catches and effected a stumping.
Q. Now, about the match-changing knock in the second innings. India were 103 for 6, Ashwin went out to bat ahead of you, your neck was stiff, some people were even saying KS Bharat should be tried out in the second Test. What was going through your mind while walking out to bat?
Wriddhiman Saha: Ashwin went ahead because of my stiff neck only. I didn’t think anything, I had mentally prepared myself to bat in the second innings. But it would have been better off if the team didn’t me since I wasn’t 100 percent fit. But since wickets fell and there was no option, I batted in a stance which gave me a better view. And my motive was to build partnerships, which I was able to with Shreyas and Axar Patel and that ultimately helped the team.
Q. Physio Nitin Patel came out quite a few times to treat you. If you could please elaborate on that?
Wriddhiman Saha: So when you have stiff neck, it stays that way for about 3-4 days and then gradually eases out. Nitin Patel treated me really well to help me get to a stage where I could go out to bat. I was still facing difficulty while keeping, but for batting, the neck isn’t needed that much. That’s why I changed my stance, and he was coming out to check if everything was alright, to massage the tight muscles.
Q. How many injections and painkillers did you take that day?
Wriddhiman Saha: I took just one injection before going out to bat, but I had to take painkillers every day ever since it happened.
Q. You spoke about playing with an open stance because of your stiff neck. But did it also take the LBW out of the window?
Wriddhiman Saha: Since the ball was reversing and there wasn’t much bounce in the pitch, that open stance helped and I was able to see the ball better. But normally how the left leg has to go in line with the ball, it wasn’t happening in my case. I had to manage with just the bat – had I got beaten, I would have probably been bowled – but I managed really well on that day.
Q. There was tension at your place because your wife was down with dengue. Before that 61, there was pressure on the field as well. How do you deal with pressure? Because that knock was a show of grit and determination.
Wriddhiman Saha: Yes, she wasn’t well and I was communicating with her doctor in the evening after returning to the hotel. I was trying to help as much as I could, by talking to my family and trying to arrange a hospital bed. And at the same time, I had it in my mind that I might have to bat and hence looked after my fitness as well. I wasn’t thinking too far ahead but just focused on the job at hand.
Q. So you don’t take any pressure?
Wriddhiman Saha: Yes I always like to live in the present. There are definitely some long-term goals but it’s not like I will keep thinking about those things.
Q. The Kanpur pitch came under the scanner with even Rahul Dravid questioning it. But you and Shreyas seemed rather comfortable, so what is the key to getting runs on these surfaces?
Wriddhiman Saha: On tracks where balls stay low, I like to play straight. And when there is tight bowling from both ends, there is more pressure on the batters. That’s why we were taking calculative risks in the middle – Shreyas stepped down the track to hit Ajaz Patel and I followed a similar approach against Somerville.
Q. You were in the dressing room on Day 5 and India needed six more wickets in the last session. We knew the light fades early in Kanpur, so was the team confident of pulling it off at Tea?
Wriddhiman Saha: Yeah the wicket wasn’t easy to close the match because of the lack of bounce, unlike in Mumbai where the bounce aided the spinners. There was the belief, but at the same time, we all knew it wouldn’t be easy to get those wickets.
Q. In the end, Rachin Ravindra and Ajaz Patel survived 52 deliveries and India came so close yet so far. Was there any frustration in the dressing room?
Wriddhiman Saha: Everyone gave their 100 percent, that was the most important thing. Whether the desired outcome is achieved or no, it doesn’t matter to this current Indian team. It’s not like it takes more time to move on from these matches. Even if we lose a match, we only discuss what all we could have done better and then shift our focus on upcoming games.
Q. Did the stiff neck make your selection for the second Test doubtful? And how big a role did the support staff play?
Wriddhiman Saha: The physios worked around the clock in treating me. The first practice session in Mumbai was washed out, but I trained on the second day to check how far I have recovered. Then they worked on releasing the tight muscles, and that’s why I could play the second match.
Q. About the second match, there were lots of talk about Virat Kohli replacing Mayank Agarwal. But Mayank responded with a century and you were there at the other end. You must be knowing how much the hundred meant to him?
Wriddhiman Saha: In addition to being an important knock for the team, it was crucial for him personally also. In the last few games, Mayank couldn’t deliver how much the team asked of him. That’s why that hundred was important for him and this is exactly what we were discussing when he reached the milestone.
Q. Just to clarify, why is your Instagram handle ‘Wriddhipops’ and is that the reason your teammates call you ‘Popsy bhai’?
Wriddhiman Saha: Actually my nickname is ‘Papali’ and that has been shortened to ‘Pops’.
Q. In the Mumbai Test, you were batting overnight on 25 before eventually getting out on 27 the next morning. Does a new day mean a fresh start?
Wriddhiman Saha: Yes definitely. Even if you score a hundred in one game, you start afresh in the next one. So yeah, had I continued batting the previous evening, I would have probably gotten more runs. But then there was a break in between which disrupted the momentum. My concentration probably wasn’t 100 percent, footwork wasn’t great, hence I missed the ball.
Q. And if you are not out overnight, do you keep thinking how you will start the next day?
Wriddhiman Saha: Not at all, I completely switch off from on-field stuff.
Q. Then that historic day when Ajaz Patel took all 10 wickets. When did you guys start talking about this possibility?
Wriddhiman Saha: After he picked up the first six wickets, we were saying to each other, ‘He can’t do it, can he?’ We were also discussing this to be one of the toughest feats to achieve, but then the stars were aligned in favour of him that day.
Q. When No. 11 Siraj went into bat, was he asked to try and evade becoming Ajaz’s 10th victim?
Wriddhiman Saha: Everyone knew the situation, so nobody was told anything in particular. At the end of the day, everyone has their own head and view to read a situation.
Q. Talking about your wicketkeeping, how challenging is it for someone to keep wickets on a track which offers turn and bounce from the first day?
Wriddhiman Saha: Firstly, if more balls come to the wicketkeeper, then the keeper actually enjoys it. The bounce along with spin definitely makes it challenging, but I rely on whatever I have been doing since childhood and I was able to make certain sudden adjustments based on the wicket. My stance was different in Mumbai because there was more bounce – I had to stay a bit upright.
Q. Everybody rates your wicketkeeping very highly, so do you work on anything specific in training or has the technique become muscle memory?
Wriddhiman Saha: Yes that, plus my main goal while keeping is to gather the ball anyhow. In addition to that, it helps if the technique and posture are correct.
Q. How important is fitness, especially for keeping wickets in the long formats? Do you work on any specific muscle groups in the gym?
Wriddhiman Saha: We keepers have to focus on lower-body strength because lower back, hamstring, upper back, neck, all these things are used throughout the day. Further, there are individual diets and we all religiously maintain that. Everyone knows only if they are fit, they will be able to deliver better in matches. Now that I am home, I’ll obviously have home-cooked food. But if my diet gets awry, I’ll make it up in the gym.
Q. We know how you have mentored Rishabh Pant, the two of you keep discussing wicketkeeping. A few words on KS Bharat?
Wriddhiman Saha: The more matches one plays, the more experience they gain. So he has come a long way on that front. Plus when we are doing drills together, we both look out for each other and discuss what would be good for a particular situation.
Q. How much say do you have on DRS calls?
Wriddhiman Saha: The captain always takes the final call, but he does ask for the views of the bowler, keeper or the slip fielder before that. But even if I ask the captain to take DRS and the decision turns out against us, it’s not like they blame me for pushing it. If it doesn’t happen, well and good, but giving the point of view is the ultimate thing.
Q. Do you then consciously stay alert to give the captain a better judgement on DRS calls?
Wriddhiman Saha: Definitely. Keepers cannot relax for even a single delivery – be it for DRS or a normal delivery – we have to be 100 percent focused on each and every ball.
Q. How is your equation with Virat Kohli? What do you guys discuss when he stands in the slip cordon?
Wriddhiman Saha: Yeah we keep discussing what would be a better move and when to do what. We have normal conversations as well, it’s not like both us are standing and yet not talking at all.
Q. Rahul Dravid has come with a lot of experience from the stable of NCA and India’s age-group setups. You have also played with him. How would you describe Dravid the coach?
Wriddhiman Saha: He has gelled with the team pretty well – things have been the same as they were under the erstwhile management. If anyone has to fine-tune anything, then he is the best guy to discuss it with.
Q. Virat Kohli spoke about selection headaches and you might as well have to make way for Rishabh Pant despite performing so well. How do you deal with uncontrollables?
Wriddhiman Saha: Since my childhood, I have never worried about my selection or performance. So I won’t think about those even now, whatever the team decides, I will accept it. Good or bad comes later, but team is the first priority.
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