Runs pip skills in wicket-keepers’ race, again as India opt for Rishabh Pant instead of Wriddhiman Saha in 1st Test against New Zealand
Virat Kohli and Ravi Shastri have rallied India to top of the charts. At least the ICC World Test Championships points table says so. But time to time the Indian thinktank comes up with debatable changes—particularly away from home—that become the focal point of that series. These decisions won’t show up in Virat Kohli’s remarkable 61% winning record as Test captain in 54 matches, but have definitely affected away results.
Interestingly, each of these radical calls has come in opening Tests of an important away tour. On Friday, in the ongoing Wellington Test, India preferred Rishabh Pant over Wriddhiman Saha as wicket-keeper. Not for Pant’s glovework, but his superior batting ability. It’s a decision that may not be as talked about as the dropping of Cheteshwar Pujara for the first Test of the 2018 England tour because of his poor run of county scores in the lead-up to the series.
The decision was reversed in the next Test and Pujara responded with big runs in the third and fourth Tests. A few months before this, India had dropped vice-captain and Test specialist Ajinkya Rahane in the first two Tests of the three-Test series in South Africa. India lost both Tests before calling Rahane for third Test in Johannesburg. He responded with a belligerent second innings’ knock of 48 to help India set up a historic win.
However, it may be difficult to quantify if Saha’s presence behind the stumps will be missed. Unlike in football where a goalkeeper’s primary skills dictate his selection, in cricket a wicket-keeper’s batting can tip the scales in his favour. If Pant misses a catch or stumping, he can still justify his selection with a counter-attacking batting performance.
He had a chance to just that but unfortunately his innings was cut short because of a mix-up with Ajinkya Rahane early on Day 2 in Wellington.
Traditionally, the most skilled wicket-keeper is picked for Test cricket. But that is not the case here. Is the team management being too cheeky in undermining Saha’s keeping prowess over Pant? Or does it believe Pant is not a bad keeper against the moving ball overseas as opposed to the spinning ball at home? “They want to strengthen their batting. And Pant’s wicket-keeping is not bad. He has got 51 dismissals in 11 Tests,” says former India stumper Kiran More.
Interestingly, despite the impression created by Pant’s sloppy glovework, his wicket-keeping records in away Tests are impressive (46 dismissals in 10 matches).
To Pant’s credit, he registered a record 11 dismissals in Adelaide 2018 against Australia. But it’s a small sample size. Pant is just two years into international Test cricket and has played only two Tests at home. And that has happened because the thinktank firmly believes Saha is better equipped to keep to spinners on turning pitches.
IMPACT ON RETURN
Returning to Test cricket after a 21-month shoulder injury-induced layoff, Saha made an immediate impact in the home series against South Africa last year where he accounted for 12 dismissals—including two blinding catches—in three Tests. He was again the go-to man in the day-night Test against Bangladesh in Kolkata, where the pink ball swung more after going past the batsman. That’s when Shastri called Saha the best wicket-keeper in the world.
“There is no doubt the confidence of the keeper gets affected if you are constantly dropped. You can’t have horses for courses policy in Test cricket. If Saha is match fit, he should have played. We underestimate the value of a good wicket-keeper,” says former wicket-keeper Nayan Mongia.
“In windy, Wellington for example, the ball wobbles, so you need to be soft on your feet, your hands should be softer, you need to move with the ball. Just like how a batsman has to play late, a keeper needs to keep watching the ball till the end. Your knee should be bent, shoulders should be soft and the head should be on the ball. You need to make certain adjustments. Saha is technically the better keeper.”
Pant has edged Saha in the overseas wicket-keeper race with the lasting effect his centuries in England and Australia have had. With those two crucial hundreds at Sydney and at the Oval, Pant averages close to 39 with 580 runs in 10 away Tests. Saha averages 30 in 14 away Tests but experts agree Pant—with an overall batting average of 44 in 12 Tests—offers a lot more with the bat. “You have to ask yourself if someone will play for the next ten years. Sometimes you have to invest on those lines. Saha is 35, Pant is 22,” says More.
Going by the horses-for-courses thought process however, Pant seems to have been picked not so much for his potential but for what he may be offering in Wellington. It became evident when Pant, for all his explosive batting skills, was recently dropped in favour of KL Rahul in white-ball cricket. In away Tests, India’s lower-middle order has struggled. When the ball swings and seams, the likes of R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja are not the batting contributors they are at home. Pant may have been brought in for better balance. But Mongia argues.
“A good keeper can give confidence to the bowler. A good bowler needs a good keeper. He is the backbone of the team who controls the match and field placements, slip positions. He needs to have the sixth sense. I think Saha has it.”