Pant vs Saha in Tests: Comparing Apples and Oranges
Wriddhiman Saha’s Test average of 30.63 pales in comparison to Rishabh Pant’s 44.35.
The news of Rishabh Pant being dropped from the Indian Test XI for Wriddhiman Saha might come as a surprise to many Indian cricket fans. Most who would compare the numbers of Saha and Pant would be left scratching their heads.
But there's no point considering the numbers as you'll find Pant to be miles ahead in that regard.
Saha’s Test average of 30.63 pales in comparison to Pant’s 44.35. In fact, Pant’s batting figures are one of the best that any wicketkeeper has sported so early in his career.
Since making his Test debut, Pant has played 11 Tests, scoring 754 runs at an average of 44.35. With centuries in Australia and England, the Delhi lad not only became the first Indian wicketkeeper to score Test tons in these two countries but also became only the second visiting wicketkeeper after Windies’ Jeff Dujon to achieve the feat.
On the other hand, Saha, who last represented India in January 2018 against South Africa has way inferior numbers. The 34-year-old, in 32 Tests, has scored 1164 runs at an average of 30.63.
Why Has Saha Edged Pant Now?
The underlying factor to this decision is the whole wicketkeeper-batsman versus batsman-wicketkeeper debate. Before the likes of Adam Gilchrist and Kumar Sangakkara created ripples, countries mostly preferred players who were better wicketkeepers, even if they were not as skilled with the bat.
This idea was based on the belief that dropping a crucial catch or missing a stumping at an important juncture in the game can cost the team way more than those additional 30-40 runs.
However, as keepers like Gilchrist, MS Dhoni and Brendon McCullum changed the game, more and more players who were batsmen first and wicketkeepers later began to be preferred.
This theory works well in SENA countries (South Africa, England, New Zealand Australia), on pitches that have pace and bounce and the quick bowlers are in charge.
The wicketkeeper then has to stand back to the wickets and the ball generally comes at a comfortable height. Standing up to the wickets in the Indian subcontinent, where the balls spits, where the bounce is uneven and natural variations occur off the surface, wicketkeeping becomes not only more difficult but a different art altogether.
Team Management's Rationale
The Indian team management, without much contrarians on this subject, believes Saha to be the more accomplished wicketkeeper.
To his credit, Saha has inspired some confidence with the bat lately, performing well in List A matches. The 34-year-old scored two 60s against West Indies A and another 60 against South Africa A in Mysore recently.
Many in and around the cricketing circles can see the logic in picking Saha but they are more concerned about the team's lack of a streamlined vision. When the team management gambled on Pant after an injury to Saha and poor outings of Dinesh Karthik, they exactly knew what they would get from him.
In fact, if anything, Pant has delivered more with the bat than what anyone would have anticipated. It is hard to believe that those in charge of Indian cricket did not pre-empt that there will be some glitches in his keeping, simply because he hadn't kept enough in List A cricket.
The team can, in all fairness, decide to opt for a two-keeper policy for home and away Tests, but then, they ought to stick to it. The reason being, Saha's technique of staying leg side of the ball and playing away from the body is very unlikely to reap dividends in SENA countries and then you might have to look towards Pant, again.
For now, you can only deduce from cricketing logic, as Saha has never played a Test in England or New Zealand. In South Africa, he managed a duck and an eight in his only appearance.
On the contrary, Pant has played nine of his 11 Tests in overseas conditions, averaging 92 at home and 38 abroad. He only managed 58 runs in the two-match Test series against the West Indies but that’s obviously not reason enough to drop him.
'Best Keeper in the World'
Kohli did not mince his words in the pre-match press conference and went on to term Saha as the ''best keeper in the world".
“... Saha was always the one we would back as a pure keeper in Test cricket. He has done well under pressure situations in the past for us, so it was just about finding the right opportunity and the moment to bring him back in.”Virat Kohli
There's also a protocol across teams in international cricket for an established player to take his spot back upon returning from injury. Remember, how Ajinkya Rahane was given preference over Karun Nair in the first Test on Australia's 2017 tour of India, despite the youngster having become only the second Indian to score a triple ton.
Now then, there is an interesting question for the Indian team management to answer. Suppose Saha showcases impeccable glovework but does not live up to the expectations with the bat. What will you do then?
Will you then go back to Pant and compromise on wicketkeeping skills or stick to Saha and compromise on some useful runs? There's little doubt that Team India is batting on a sticky wicket.
(Saksham Mishra is a freelance sports journalist, justifying hours of watching sports by scribbling down a few logical lines that might just about hold your interest. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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