When pitches start to wither, when the bounce gets fickle, when a ball throws up dust on hitting the turf, it is the batsmen you worry about. “Oooh” we go when one takes off past the shoulder of the bat or hurtles through at ankle height. The spinner has a mischievous grin, the batsman the look of a condemned man.
You don’t think too much about the wicketkeeper though. The byes that result from a wicked surface go against his name and if he keeps a clean sheet, it doesn’t stare at you from a scorecard a fortnight later. And yet, as much as the batsman almost, he has to combat the surface. If the batsman is beaten, he lives another day, if the ‘keeper is beaten, it is four byes and slip looks at short leg with a twisted smile and a raised eyebrow.
I thought of that over the last couple of days of the Test match at the Sinhalese Sports Club ground in Colombo. Normally, the batsmen are on the guest list there. Hundreds are strewn around and if you are Mahela Jayawardene, you only count the runs after the mandatory hundred has appeared. But this track was different. It was powdery to start off and by the third morning, the ball was spitting and bouncing. By the fourth morning, the odd one was taking off almost vertically as Dimuth Karunaratne and Mathews discovered.
And yet, every time the ball beat the bat, at varying heights, it found a comforting glove. Every time it acquired a mind of its own after pitching, it was arrested and returned to the bowler. There were no oohs and aahs, no exaggerated reactions, just a calm gather and a crouch for the next ball. Keeping was hazardous but Wriddhiman Saha made it look like just another balance-sheet to be put together and filed away.
I have very rarely seen wicket-keeping like this. Maybe Nayan Mongia standing up to Anil Kumble’s rockets on a pitch of variable bounce. Maybe Syed Kirmani at his peak. Kiran More was good and MS Dhoni brought his own style to a difficult job and rarely had a bad day. But Saha, so understated, was a treat to watch. Only once in the second innings was he beaten and he would have needed a fisherman’s net to catch that one. And when he caught Mathews off another Jadeja sortie that bombed the pitch, we gasped.
Jadeja was bowling in the high nineties, more than ten kmph faster than Ashwin who was going past the outside edge for fun himself, more than 15 kmph faster than Herath on average and a good 20 kmph quicker than the debutant Pushpakumara. When he felt like it, he crossed 100 kmph. After he faced the first ball, Mathews asked for an arm-guard because the first one hissed at him violently.
But Saha seemed unperturbed. Indeed, amusing as it seems, taking a DRS call seemed to fluster him more. He couldn’t have known where the ball was headed and yet it seemed he did. In our commentary box, Vijay Dahiya, no mean ‘keeper himself, was rejoicing. Ajay Jadeja wanted to make him the Man of the Match.
In time to come, there will be nothing to measure Saha’s brilliance, no scorecard will be read in reverence, no highlights packages will be preserved, no accolades offered on awards nights.
But the eyes saw it. And left imprints behind. Sometimes sport makes you gasp at the skill on display. Saha made you gasp in Colombo.