Saha v Patel – Battle Royale: A healthy competition is always a welcome sign. It also gives a ‘problem of plenty’ for the selectors.
After being in the ‘shadow’ of Mahendra Singh Dhoni, the Bengal wicket-keeper-batsman, Wriddhiman Saha, became a ‘regular’ in the Playing XI for the longer version, when Dhoni announced his retirement from Tests, midway in the India-Australia series played Down Under in 2014.
Dhoni continued to don the Indian colours in the shorter versions of the game.
Being a ‘regular’ in the Playing XI for the Tests, Saha did not encounter any kind of competition for his position. Wicket-keeper batsmen like Dinesh Karthik, Parthiv Patel were all ‘forgotten’ names, while the likes of Naman Ojha, C Gautham, Sanju Samson, Rishabh Pant were never looked at from the ‘Test arena’ angle. Robin Uthappa was never in the reckoning.
It all happened during the home-Test series against England, that in the Second Test, Saha picked up an injury and had to be out of the Playing XI.
The selectors’ really ‘pulled up ace from the sleeve,’ picking up the diminutive Parthiv Patel for the remaining three Test matches. However, this move of the selectors did surprise quite a few.
However, Patel, who returned to the Test team after a hiatus of 8 years, had a huge responsibility on him. He had to justify his selection and also prove that he was still a ‘force to reckon with.’
He clearly showed what his slog in the domestic circuit had taught him.
Speaking to Sanjay Manjrekar after hitting the winning stroke in the third Test match at Mohali, Patel said, “I was very nervous before the start of the Test. The kind of welcome I got from the dressing room (he was returning after 8 years), it never felt I was joining them after eight years. That”s the beauty of this team. Playing aggressively suits my game. The intent was very important, and I backed myself. Ashwin was brilliant. The way he varied his pace was brilliant. He deceived even me. There wasn”t much help in the wicket.”
Patel’s knocks in both the innings at Mohali were very crucial since one of the openers needed to play a significant role to give a good start and to put up a sizable total.
Asked to bat in the middle order in the fourth and pen ultimate Test match at Wankhede Stadium, Mumbai, Patel could not score anything significant.
Restored to the opening slot alongwith KL Rahul in the fifth and final Test played at MA Chidambaram Stadium, Chepauk, Chennai, due to a shoulder injury to the regulation opener, Murali Vijay (who batted lower down the order), Patel scored a very valuable 71 runs (his individual best in Tests, thus far), in the only innings that India batted, and also was instrumental in establishing a partnership of 152 runs for the first wicket.
Thus featuring in four innings from three Test matches in the series (remaining unbeaten once), Patel had scored 195 runs (with a couple of half-tons) at an average of 65 and personal best of 71 runs.
With this kind of a performance, it would be gross injustice to Patel, if he were to be dropped from the Test squad.
Now there was a problem of ‘too many”. With Saha donning the big gloves in Tests and Patel dishing out such an exemplary performance, it could be a tough call for the selectors.
With the debate of ‘Saha vs Patel’ doing the rounds, and Patel, in addition to his performance in the Test series, also led his team Gujarat, from the front, to win the Ranji Trophy 2016-17 title.
With all-odds favouring Patel, the Bengal wicket-keeper had to do something exemplary to be in the selectors’ radar.
Opportunity knocked at his door when he was picked up for the Rest of India Team to play in the Irani Cup against the Ranji champions, Gujerat led by Patel.
Unable to open his account in the first innings, Saha ‘came into his elements’ in the second knock.
Facing a target of 379 runs for a win and losing top four batsmen, Akhil Herwadkar (20), Abhinav Mukund (19), Karun Nair (7) and Manoj Tiwary (7), with just 63 runs on the board, Wriddhiman Saha had a job on hand. He had to stay put with his skipper, Cheteshwar Pujara, who was waging a lone battle.
He did exactly that and ended the fourth day with his team on 266 runs for the loss of 4 wickets. The duo had put on 203 runs for the fifth wicket.
Rest of India still had to get another 113 runs for a win. This they did in style with both the overnight batsmen, Pujara and Saha, remaining un-separated till the end.
While Pujara registered an unbeaten 116* runs in 409 minutes, facing 238 deliveries, aided by 16 fours, Saha notched up his maiden double-ton in First Class cricket, scoring an unbeaten 203* runs off 272 balls with the help of 26 fours and 6 sixes in a stay 346 minutes at the crease.
This unbroken partnership of 316* runs helped Rest of India win the Irani Cup.
More so, Saha came into limelight with his cameo innings, reminding the selectors’ of his match fitness, post his injury and also of him being in contention for the wicket-keeper slot in the longer format.
The selectors’ have a tough job on hand in resolving this ‘battle royale’ between Wriddiman Saha and Parthiv Patel.