India vs Australia: The long and short of Rishabh Pant’s return and Wriddhiman Saha’s departure
Facts: Rishabh Pant is 23, Wriddhiman Saha is 36. Pant averages over 38 with the bat, Saha just 29. Pant has a Ranji Trophy triple century, Saha’s highest is 203*. Pant is the only Indian wicketkeeper to have scored a century (159) in Australia. Saha averages a meagre 15.50 with a highest score of 35. In the last tour of Australia, Pant set a new record for the most catches (20) by an India wicketkeeper in a Test series. Saha has no such feat to his name.
Then why was Saha picked over Pant for the first Test in Adelaide? Because, technically, Saha is India’s best wicketkeeper. And when it comes to Tests, specialists should always get the nod ahead of allrounders. That’s the norm anyway. But these are different circumstances. Trailing 0-1 after being hammered in Adelaide, India have decided to field seven batsmen at the MCG for the second Test. Out goes Saha. In comes Pant. It has been this way for some years now. All teams tinker with combinations but India is possibly the only Test team to change wicketkeepers so often.
“I don’t blame Wriddhiman Saha at all. It’s not fair to him. Everyone got out (in Adelaide), you see,” said former India wicketkeeper Kiran More, who has been a national selector as well. But there is no escaping reality. Saha’s astute keeping skills makes him a shoo-in against spinners in Indian conditions. That’s not the case in Australia, where lower-order runs are essential, even if it comes at the cost of a few byes and dropped chances. Pant comes with that promise of runs.
“Saha has also scored runs (across his career) but definitely wicketkeepers have to bat. If you look at Test cricket now, with the team balance and everything, you can’t have one player who just does one thing. As a wicketkeeper you have to be a good batsman,” said More. Then why pick Saha at all? Why not give Pant the long rope? “It’s the selectors’ call. Last tour Rishabh Pant scored a century in Australia and India won the series. So you don’t know what may have been the factor. He also kept very well. His statistics are also good.”
The game has changed. Like the modern-day goalkeeper -- who often joins the last-minute goalmouth scrum to score or steps up for a penalty-kick -- wicketkeepers have to bat out of their skin more often these days. Take Pakistan’s tour of England in the summer of 2020 where Jos Buttler fumbled catches, missed stumpings and looked unsure standing up to the spinner. In the first Test in Manchester, Buttler had dropped Shan Masood off Dom Bess before missing his stumping when he was on 45. Masood went on to score 156.
In that Old Trafford Test alone, Buttler was projected to have cost England 69 runs by CricViz. Nevertheless, Buttler went on to become England’s Player of the Series because of his match-winning 75 in the first Test and a patient 152 that resuscitated their first innings in the third Test. It validated the belief that wicketkeepers don’t really need to be foolproof behind the wickets; as long as they can prove to be a winning option in front of it.
More still believes one can’t compromise on the quality of wicketkeeping. “Even if you score a fifty or a century and then drop catches and the opposition gets a few centuries then it goes back to zero. You can lose the match,” said More. Pant is young. He may have already broken some wicketkeeping records but is still not as perceptive as Saha behind the stumps. But More wants the management to give him more chances.
“Pant is not that bad a wicketkeeper. He has a good Test record. I think we need to trust him,” said More. “He made some mistakes but there is always a chance you could make a good Test cricketer out of him. But you have to trust him. You can’t give him one or two matches and then drop him. That’s not fair too. He has got a hundred in England, a hundred in Australia. How many wicketkeepers have done that?”
More also feels that Pant, being a left-handed batsman, gives the batting line-up much-needed variety. He said: “If you look at Adelaide, I wish we had a left-hander batsman. That way you have to change your line. If Pant goes to bat at No 7, that would be fantastic. He is a destructive batsman who does well on bouncy pitches.”
Cricket nowadays is driven heavily by data. So if the top five batsmen are expected to average above 40, current school of thought dictates the wicketkeeper to not be too far behind. Decade-wise breakup of Test batting averages gives us a better picture of how this theory gained momentum over time. In the nineties, there were four wicketkeepers who had played at least 20 Tests averaging over 30. That shot up to 11 in the 2000s and 13 since 2010. This period also witnessed some of the finest wicketkeepers like Ian Healy (119 Tests from 1988-99) and Mark Boucher (147 Tests from 1997-2012) who were decent bats as well (Healy averaged 27.39 and Boucher 30.30). But who wouldn’t mind a few extra runs from the wicketkeeper?
That was perhaps why England spent nearly the entirety of the 90s swinging between Jack Russell and Alec Stewart. Then in 1996, Romesh Kaluwitharane changed the dynamics of one-day batting. Four years later, Andy Flower became the first wicketkeeper to score more than 1000 runs (1045) in a calendar year (2000), averaging a stunning 80.38. The next year, the Zimbabwean scored 899 runs at an average of 89.90. When Flower finally retired in 2002, he averaged 53.70, an unprecedented number those days. These extraordinary averages played a huge role in necessitating the compulsion to make batsmen out of wicketkeepers. No longer were captains happy with wicketkeepers scoring ‘useful’ knocks.
The next turning point came with the emergence of 28-year-old Adam Gilchrist. Flower was a blend of caution and aggression, and as accomplished a wicketkeeper-batsman as you could ask for. Not Gilchrist, a freak of nature. Dependable behind the stumps, belligerent with the bat and a team man to the core, Gilchrist embodied the never-say-die Australian spirit. It finally took MS Dhoni, with his unorthodox keeping and match-winning ability with the bat, to put final touches to the revolution Gilchrist had started.
While Gilchrist ambushed bowlers as a batsman but remained more conservative behind the stumps, Dhoni was different. He cut down the time between collecting the ball and whipping off the bails by incorporating both in the same action -- similar to Mohammed Azharuddin’s pick-and-throw in the same motion. Redirecting a throw on to the stumps, stopping the late cut by sticking out his leg, Dhoni was all about match awareness and didn’t bother consulting the wicketkeepers’ manual. It cut into the batsmen’s reaction time, leading to more stumpings and more run outs. Pant can’t be faulted for trying to fit the Dhoni mould.
Specialist wicketkeeping, as a concept, has taken a big hit though. Staying low, watching the ball (and not the bat) till the last moment and soft hands were once non-negotiable traits to qualify as a wicketkeeper. Not anymore. Saha has yet again been told that merely catching well isn’t good enough. Wicketkeepers need to show Dhoni’s pragmatism and AB de Villiers’s athleticism behind the stumps. And then also score heavily in front of it.