VISAKHAPATNAM : In 2018, Rishabh Pant made it to the Test team on the back of a string of good white-ball scores. One patient knock with India A in England saw him stay back with the senior side. A first Test ton arrived in just his third match. Then came two scores of 92 against West Indies at home. Later in Australia, the baby-sitter matured into an adult with an unbeaten 159. The only India stumper with hundreds in England and Australia. The player whom both captain and coach were happy to take under their wings and develop. The kind of stuff that even dreams aren’t made of. All of this at just 21 years of age. The name Wriddhiman Saha had faded into the background.
Cut to the present. Since that century in Sydney, expectations from Pant have only grown. Despite low returns with the white ball, he auditioned against Australia in the ODIs at home. That didn’t work. Neither did the IPL that came and went. Neither did the opportunity as a replacement at the last World Cup. But MS Dhoni’s future was unclear, and chief selector MSK Prasad had anointed Pant as the first-choice for India across formats.
Then came that horrid tour of US and Caribbean. Pant entered the Tests on the back of a string of bad scores. More than the runs he didn’t score, each of his dismissals and their timing became talking points. Out of nowhere, Saha was reborn. After gradual integration into the national team from India A — where he quickly found his feet — Saha headed to Caribbean, knowing that his chance could arrive soon.
India, as captain Virat Kohli mentioned on Tuesday, were tempted to play Saha even in the Tests against West Indies. But instead chose to ease his comeback. Pant, meanwhile, only weakened his case with a string of low scores during the South Africa T20Is.As India gear up for five Tests at home — all part of the Test Championship — they have decided to repose their faith once again in Saha. As reported by this newspaper on Tuesday, it is a decision they have arrived not by Pant’s numbers with the bat, but certainly by his keeping skills.
India believe that Pant still needs to improve his keeping when spinners are operating. In this sense, they regard Saha — whom Kohli called “the best wicketkeeper in the world” — a safer asset; who can also make meaningful contributions with the bat. It is a more familiar role to Saha than Pant; one in which India want specialised expertise, not flamboyance.
“Saha was always going to be someone we would back as a pure keeper in Tests, and he’s done well under pressure also,” explained Kohli. “It was about finding the right moment to bring him back in. I feel now is the right time for Saha to come back in, get into his zone. We know what he can do with the gloves, and with the bat as well under pressure situations.”