Even if that tame chip to Marnus Labuschagne at short mid-wicket turns out to be Wriddhiman Saha’s last ever contribution to Indian cricket, he can leave with his head held high.
Should the Adelaide Test indeed turn out to be his last, it would be as much irony as it would be a shame, for it would mean one of India’s greatest ever glovemen concluding his Test career without inflicting a single dismissal in his final game. But Saha can rest assured knowing he has served Indian cricket like few others have in the country’s history.
But the time has come for sentiments to take a back step. It is time for the Indian cricket team to move on from Wriddhiman Prasanta Saha.
What happened at the Adelaide Oval days ago has no correlation to what’s being written here. Saha in no way was remotely culpable for the abomination that unfolded and he, if anything, is someone who unfortunately has been caught in the crossfire. The management picked him very well knowing that anything he offers with the bat would be a bonus - he averaged 14.85 in SENA prior to the first Test - and their reasoning was that they needed a solid presence behind the stumps.
And he gave them just that, though some would harshly argue that he should have gobbled both the chances that came his way. But in the larger scheme of things, India are, and would be, holding themselves back and potentially digging an unwanted king-sized hole by persisting with Saha any longer.
Why India need to move on from Saha is simple: at 36, his days in the national side are numbered, but more importantly, his presence is hindering the development of Rishabh Pant. Despite having made his debut two years ago, Pant has played just 13 Test matches for India and has featured in just 2 of the country’s last 8 Tests. He has, in fact, only ever played two Tests at home - both of which came at a time when Saha was injured - and is viewed by the management as an ‘away specialist’.
In reality, though, Pant is not an ‘away specialist’. If he was, he would have featured in Adelaide. Calling Pant an away specialist is the management’s way to sugarcoat the fact that his keeping is not up to desired standards. Pant, they feel, is too error-prone and green to keep to the Ashwins and Jadejas on turning Indian wickets, but while they are ‘okay’ with his glovework against pace, the trade-off of him being a genuine world-class batsman is a deal too lucrative to turn down away from home. Hence, the home/away musical chair.
This home/away musical chair ploy abided by India, though, like the dubious selection in Adelaide, is a conservative move triggered by the paranoia of the worst-case ‘what if’ scenario coming to fruition. Regardless of how great the payoff is, the team opts for the safer selection - i.e Pant is bound to drop Smith on nought more than Saha, so they opt for the latter - to get that extra blanket of safety. But what’s being achieved as a result is that the progress of a potentially world-class younger player is being stymied concurrently as the team is being starved of stability. In short, the team is preparing itself for long-term disaster, particularly with the incumbent, Saha, now 36.
Let us get something straight: Pant’s wicket-keeping is not going to magically improve overnight. Nor will he be able to iron out all flaws by spending hours in the nets and take over the mantle as a world-class keeper as soon as Saha calls it a day. The only way Pant will ever become a better keeper, particularly versus spin on rank turners, is if he learns on the job. Ideally, that should have been in domestic cricket, but the hectic nature of scheduling, coupled with the fact that he is a white-ball regular for the national team - despite the recent axe - means that there will be no window for him to hone his skills in Ranji.
That leaves Test cricket as the only viable option. To enable Pant to learn on the job, however, the management will need to be willing to take risks. They would need to throw Pant in the line of fire against Ashwin and Jadeja on dustbowls and would need to be prepared for the inevitable mistake(s) to arrive. Those mistakes could very well cost India a Test or two, but it is a gamble that the management must be braced to take, for the long-term results will blow away the short-term scars.
Why the payoff, we can say with authority, will be worth it in the long haul is because of Pant’s quality with the bat; his x-factor. He is, unlike Saha, a three-dimensional cricketer who can single-handedly win games with the bat and he belongs to the rare breed of wicket-keepers who can warrant a place in the side as a specialist batsman. At 23, he is already the most successful SENA keeper-batsman in India’s Test history and his twin 92s versus the Windies proved that he can be twice as effective with the bat at home - a scary sight for any opposition.
The pros of fast-tracking Pant and making him a Test regular will outweigh the cons and by some distance. Barring the fact that his keeping will organically improve, India, in the presence of Pant, will also become a significantly stronger batting side, both home and away, thus opening up further avenues for experimentation. Pant, himself, will mature faster as a cricketer, and, for all we know, that could rub off on the white-ball arena, where he has perennially struggled.
If reports are to be believed, the management are looking at giving Pant a run of 7 Tests - three versus Australia away and four versus England at home. It is an indication that they are thinking along the right lines. With the inaugural WTC cycle coming to its conclusion - and with the final set to be played away from home, anyway - it makes little sense for team India to cling on to Saha. If anything, it is high time for them to start grooming and investing in the next batch of young keepers; that KS Bharat - another one-dimensional keeper - was the standby (third-choice) as recent as the New Zealand tour does not bode well for the side.
It would be a shame if Saha’s Test career does indeed come to an abrupt end, but it would, in many ways, mark him coming full circle. For after all it would be tragically poetic if the man who spent his embryonic days in the shadows ended his career the same way, stepping into the darkness to let a charismatic youngster take the limelight. But his legacy will endure as one selfless man in Indian cricket who gave his all when summoned and then some more.