Dinesh Karthik vs Wriddhiman Saha - Race to be India’s "consistent" red-ball keeper begins

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BCCI

Dinesh Karthik vs Wriddhiman Saha - Race to be India’s "consistent" red-ball keeper begins

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Bastab K Parida

06/07/2018

When Anil Kumble took over the reins of the Indian cricket team ahead of India’s Windies tour in 2016, the team management decided to promote R Ashwin above Wriddhiman Saha, who at that point, had already played 11 Tests and scored 367 runs at 21.58, with two fifties and no hundreds.

This has been a truly abysmal record in the Test format when your only other responsibility is keeping wickets, at least by the standard set by MS Dhoni. To make amends for the nightmarish start to his career, Saha needed to pull up his socks and after that, it seemed like the decision to demote him one position in the batting line-up acted like a charm for the pocket dynamite from Shaktigarh, a remote place in West Bengal. Since then, Saha has been India’s best option to bat with the lower order by scoring at an average of 34. The improvement in the game was there to see and it needed a truly sublime performance from the either of Dinesh Karthik or Parthiv Patel to dethrone him from the position now considering Virat Kohli’s trust on Saha’s keeping abilities.

However, cricket is hardly about certainties and who better than DK to explain that. Dinesh Karthik was only 19 when he first played for India as a promising wicketkeeper and a batsman with a growing reputation with each and every match in the domestic cricket for Tamil Nadu and South Zone. But, the rise of a certain MS Dhoni from the cricketing backwaters of Jharkhand and Karthik’s fragile style of play made India forget the man, who had once produced an unbelievable stumping to get the better of Michael Vaughan in 2004 or pulled off a stunning catch in the 2007 World T20 against South Africa. The second wind came in 2007-08 when he became the highest run-scorer for India in their tour to England while playing as a pure opener. While many thought that he would keep at it in the home series following that trip, but that is often easier said than done. Like most things with the dazzling stroke-maker, the promise never really attained the true potential. 

But, to say, he wasn’t capable of that in the red-ball format is an understatement. In the past, Karthik had shown enough glimpses at various levels, not least for different teams in the IPL. Some of his innings in the first-class cricket has left many in complete wonderment and in one particular innings in 2008-09 Duleep Trophy game in Bangalore, he made twin hundreds of the highest quality for South Zone against a Central Zone attack that had the likes of Pankaj Singh, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Umesh Yadav, Murali Kartik, and Piyush Chawla. Playing alongside the likes of Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman, he displayed a range of shots that was jaw-dropping. However, if one reason that can be attributed to his inability to produce the same type of performances in the Test format, it was the lack of consistency and the propensity to injuries far too often.  

While Karthik was marinating at his own mediocrity, at the same time, Saha made sure that he would do possibly everything that could have been done so as to merit a place in the team when MS Dhoni decided to hang up his boots. The most striking thing about Saha has been the unusual calmness he shows behind the stumps and pretty much like his predecessor, he slowly mastered the art of keeping to the spinners - Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja will attest to it. In a busy season like the last one, Saha effected 37 dismissals in 11 Test matches and in the two Tests that he played in South Africa this year, he managed to effect 10 dismissals in the first two Tests to contribute heavily to India’s cause. 

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On the other hand, despite being a consistent performer in the domestic List A competition for Tamil Nadu, injuries have been Karthik’s biggest ally more often than not which forced him to hand over the keeping duties to Narayan Jagadeesan in the longest version of the game and now, as often as one claims, he is not the best candidate to keep the wickets in England due to the variable nature of its surface.

To go with Saha’s ability to keep both spinners and pacers with equal ease, the Bengal pacer has another technical brownie point over the KKR skipper. The duo’s style of keeping is also different and while Karthik relies more on front-foot movement, Saha is more flexible side-on and considering the swinging conditions in England, the latter ought to be more successful. Most importantly, Inda don’t have a settled slip pair since the bygone days of Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman, and apart from Ajinkya Rahane, no one can claim to be the master at the cordon and that’s where Saha comes to be of great help thanks to his ability to make perfect side-on jumps for catches. 

As far as batting goes, Saha has also shown great development and one feature of the recent trial was the way he has been handling the short balls. In the Ranchi Test against Australia last year, he showed great temperament particularly against the hostile pace of Pat Cummins and chose to sway rather than duck on most occasions which gave him a chance to stay on the leg-side of the ball and allowed himself the option of cutting or steering. Considering India’s swing-bowling prowess, England may decide against preparing out and out swinging pitches and can instead opt for bouncy decks, which will keep Saha in good stead ahead of Karthik, who seemed to struggle to counter rising deliveries in the past. 

However, this is not to say that Karthik is not capable of being successful in England. Karthik was India's leading run-getter on their 2007 tour of England, where they sealed their first Test series victory in 21 years. But, the fact that he hasn’t been a regular keeper for TN means, once Saha is ready to don the gloves, he will be the first name to be jettisoned from the team. 

But, one thing is for sure that Karthik has done enough in the recent few weeks to harbour hopes again. The nervous energy that the Karthik of yore had shown had translated itself to a restlessness, but that couldn’t make him lose the heart and he didn’t even resign to a cynical and an underachieving domestic performer. He still has a towering presence for his state team in the first-class cricket, and his 5911 runs at 46.17 are the second-most for his state since 2000. And who knows, someday, he would send the Bengal keeper down the pecking order to make the coveted position his own? Or who knows he will do everything possible in the Bengaluru Test to merit a position in the Tests against England as a pure batsman? Because with everything Karthik, life is way too uncertain, but it is definitely a tale of glorious hard work, toil and moreover, belief.

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