Over the past few years, Pant on foreign shores and Saha at home has been India’s approach to naming the man behind the stumps. In conversation with Atreyo Mukhopadhyay, former India wicketkeepers say batting shouldn’t be the yardstick in this regard...
Different wicketkeepers for different formats has been in for a long time. But one for home games and another overseas?
Hardly a common occurrence in about 143 years of Test cricket, this is an experiment with truth in Virat Kohli’s India. Wriddhiman Saha in India because the keeper’s role becomes more important sitting up and down on pitches conducive for spin. In places where the quicks bowl most of the overs, in comes someone else. After Dinesh Karthik, this role has changed hands to Rishabh Pant.
Going by recent record away from home, it can’t be said that the move has coincided with runaway success. Barring the win in Australia in 2018-19, India lost in England (Saha was not available due to injury) and South Africa. They will not win the ongoing series in New Zealand either. But the team management sees sense in this.
Before getting into the merits and demerits, let’s get this clear. Five years after Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s retirement from Test cricket, India are still to find the person who can be trusted upon behind the stumps in the longest format, irrespective of where the team is playing. Saha now and Pant then has been going on for a while. That the team has not been able to zero in on one perhaps shows a lack of faith in both.
This is done because the management thinks that forget keeping, Pant is a better batsman in conditions offering seam and swing. For all his brilliance behind the stumps, Saha is perceived as an inferior batsman who can’t be trusted upon to contribute a 30 or 40 at No 7 or 8 against a wobbling ball. The team has no qualms with him at home, in West Indies or in Sri Lanka, where batting hasn’t been the most challenging for visiting sides of late.
While the batting ability of keepers has often been a criterion for selection worldwide for some time, statistics reveal something interesting. The 2018 series in England was a closely-fought one (barring the second Test), one which India lost 1-4. The margin of defeat was 30 runs in the first Test, and 60 in the fourth. With Karthik behind the sticks in the first two Tests and Pant in the last three, India conceded 106 byes in that series. In the last two matches, Pant let 30 and 40 runs past or through him, respectively.
Picked for his skills to hit the ball hard and far, the youngster from Delhi with a first-class triple under his belt averages an above-par 42 in 12 Tests. He has centuries in England and Australia, a feat unachieved by any Indian wicketkeeper before him. At the same time, he concedes 13.1 byes per Test. His glovework is noticeably clumsy compared to Saha. Not known for hitting sixes, Saha’s bye average is 6.9 per Test (37 in all), most of which were on turning tracks in India. In five Tests (including shortened ones due to weather) he didn’t allow any byes at all, other than taking catches that went on to become highlights of those series.
So, what should the team do? According to former India wicketkeepers this newspaper spoke to, this is an obvious choice.
“Saha is clearly the more technically sound of the two. And the more experienced. He should be the No 1,” says Nayan Mongia. “It’s different in ODIs or T20s, where a keeper’s batting skills become important. But you shouldn’t compromise with keeping skills when it comes to Test matches. Unfortunately, Saha got injured at times, and that opened the door for others. If fit, there is no doubt that he is the best keeper India have right now. I’d persist with him.”
Chandrakant Pandit refers to an example from the ‘80s and ‘90s, his playing days. “I was the better batsman and Kiran More the better keeper. So it was him who was given priority when it came to India selection. Saha is a lot safer behind the stumps and keeps lapses to a minimum. One has to see what the requirement of the team is. If it needs a better keeper, then Saha is the automatic choice. One can develop Pant, but not at the cost of Saha. Pant has a lot of things to work on as far as glovework is concerned.”
And yet, the difference in the batting skills of the two is hard to overlook. In four Tests in Australia and South Africa, Saha aggregated 119 runs in eight innings (average of 14.87, and 36 is his highest). Although he averages a decent-enough 30.19 overall (three centuries and five fifties), the team evidently thinks he can’t contribute enough when the ball does a bit or more. Despite not looking convincing on many occasions, Pant averages 39.71 in England, Australia and New Zealand.
But former wicketkeepers still root for Saha.
“He is a handy batsman. He has the ability to contribute,” harps Pandit, who chipped in with useful runs as a batsman in the tied Test against Australia in 1987, in which More kept stumps. “Because India have enough depth in batting, they should not give too much importance to the batting skills of the wicketkeeper. Pant is more aggressive. But whether that makes him a more useful option as keeper in Tests is my question. One should look at who is a better contributor behind the stumps.”
Mongia feels an uninterrupted run will showcase the best of Saha. “Pant is a talented youngster with a bright future. But since we are talking about who brings more value to the team, I think it should be Saha. His batting is fine as far as the requirements of a keeper go. Because his approach is different from Pant’s, he doesn’t draw attention. I see nothing wrong with him,” feels the India keeper from 1994 to 2001, whose sole Test century (152) came as a makeshift opening batsman against Australia in 1996.
The ongoing series hasn’t seen Pant justify the team’s faith in him. Not just low returns with the bat, he showed inadequacies against the moving ball, other than a tendency to play loose shots. But it also has to be noted that he is still 22-plus, while Saha is in the second half of his thirties. The coaching staff headed by Ravi Shastri might be thinking that if he learns from experience, Pant can become an asset in the future. India’s next Test assignment is towards the end of this year in Australia, where Pant made 25, 28, 36, 30, 39, 33 and 159 not out on the 2018-19 tour.
So the debate may rage. But as long as the team management thinks that the sum total of better batting and bits-and-pieces keeping is greater than better keeping and bits-and-pieces batting in its horses-for-courses policy, Saha will most probably be on the bench when travelling and await a role reversal when the game comes home.