Wriddhiman Saha: The Simple Siligurian With An Itch For Cricket > Cricket News, cricinfo, mobilecric, cricbuzz, livescore and more

Cricket news - Wriddhiman Saha: The simple Siligurian with an itch for cricket

The makings of Saha endorse the extraordinary nature of his comeback at 35

Most mornings at the Agragami cricket academy in Siliguri these days involve a special session outside of cricket and drills for the kids. Jayanta Bhowmick, the head coach there, uses the story of his most successful pupil and his dedication from a young age as benchmarks that the kids need to strive for. But so perfect was Wriddhiman Saha as a student that his coach's idea of dedication must sound very utopian to the kids training today.

For a 12-year-old Saha who joined Agragami academy in the summer of 1996, cricket was everything. After playing in a coaching camp close to his house for a few days, he first convinced himself, and then his footballer father Prasanta Saha that cricket was his true calling. Before he knew it, his father took him along to Agragami cricket academy to give him his first taste of real cricket training. And Bhowmick - who regarded Prasanta like an older brother - took an early note of what he saw in the shy, quiet boy with a lot of stamina.

"From the beginning he was sincere. From the beginning he was different from the rest of the kids of his age group. If you tell kids to go run around the ground or give them any other drills, they would say 'sir hogaya abhi' [sir, we're done now] before finishing it completely, but it was never the case with Saha. He'd always complete the routine. He'd never lie to me - that he'd finished his drills without actually finishing it," Bhowmick tells Cricbuzz, giving away a hint of pride in his tone.

'When it rains, it pours' isn't just an idiom in Siliguri. Months of July and September, which receive heavy downpour in the region, became the time when the young man's temperament was put through a test. Signing up at the academy gave Saha a gateway into the world of serious cricket, but sustenance there was another matter. The first real show of character came on a rainy day, when Saha cycled his way through to the academy - four kilometers away from his house - while holding up an umbrella in one hand. And that became the norm for the rest of season, gladly approved by his father, and a lesson for the future. "He never took days off from practice," Bhowmick says.

Now that cricket was the calling and Wriddhiman had the gumption for it from early on, the next big task was to identify something more niche. When he played tennis-ball cricket before his Agragami days, he enjoyed his medium-pace bowling, but also liked throwing himself around on the field. As luck would have it, one day his team - that was replete with five wicket-keepers - were short of one as none of them turned up. Saha became an accidental keeper that day, and never looked back. He showed an interest to don the gloves at Agragami, and Bhowmick obliged.

That decision also came from the fact that Bhowmick had seen Prasanta Saha be an incredible goalkeeper in his heyday. After hanging up his boots, Prasanta would later join Agragami and don the wicketkeeper's gloves there, showing off his fitness and reflexes that he had worked on for years together. Wriddhiman, who Virat Kohli now hails as the best wicketkeeper in the world, brought a very similar skillset.

"Prasanta Saha also came and played cricket for our club after he left football. Here also he kept wickets, and I saw him fly around left and right to take catches. And then when I saw Wriddhi years later, he has practised his talent a lot, he's definitely inherited those genes from his father."

Saha kept like he was meant to keep from a really young age, eliciting conversation about him having inherited the skill from his father. But that perhaps takes away from the fact that he spent hours honing his talents with the big gloves, training to be what is currently an extinct species in cricket - a specialist wicketkeeper.

"He'd do keeping drills, fitness drills - 60 percent of his time was spent on keeping, 20-30 percent for fitness and lesser time on batting. He practised more time on his keeping than his batting," Bhowmick says.

Over the course of the conversation, Bhowmick keeps going back to how Saha was always different in every possible way from the pack he trained with, and threw across a fascinating example.

"He once got hit near the chin in the nets during practice and needed stitches. Other kids in his position would've cried [and left]. After getting the stitches, woh phir se maidan mein utar gaya [he came back on the field again]. He sat on the bench for a while, and then came onto the field. We told him it'd be better if he waited a while before playing again but he said kucch nahi hoga [nothing will happen]. Some kids these days lie saying I am tired, I am not feeling good. He never said that. If he ever did, then I'll know he's genuinely tired or unwell," Bhowmick says.

The dedication early on was there for all to see, but whether it would stand the test of time and a struggle was key. To find the stepping stones to domestic, and international cricket, Saha had to move away from his home at Shaktigarh and ply his trade at the club level in Kolkata. But that's easier said than done, given how much it would cost to just live and survive in a big city after coming from Siliguri. Which was when, Bablu Koley - a former CAB secretary and an owner at the Kalighat Cricket Club, entered the scene.

A room in his multi-storied building in the Koley market area, which he lets out to people who can seldom afford a place in the city, became Saha's new home for the next nine years.

"If he didn't get this place to stay, today's Wriddhiman wouldn't have existed. He'd have just returned to his hometown. Who else would give him a place to stay for free in Kolkata when he came from Siliguri," says Rinke Sole, who met Saha during his stay in that room and became his friend for life.

There's sheer gratitude in Saha's heart for the place and Rinke, who was with him through his emotional journey - from his club cricket and Under-19 days to the lucky Ranji break due to Deep Dasgupta's absence in 2007 and his first IPL contract with the Kolkata Knight Riders in 2008. It reflects in the fact that even today when Saha arrives in Kolkata, he spends a lot of time at the building and with Rinke - sipping tea and reminiscing old memories.

In those days, Saha had a set routine to follow religiously. At 6 am in the morning he'd either take a bus or even walk the three-and-a-half kilometre distance to Kalighat Club, where he'd practice for hours. Once that's done, he'd return and lock himself up in the room. No distractions, no vices to veer him away from cricket, as the time spent away from the ground was invested in shadow practice in his room.

"He didn't complain about a thing. Not the room, not the food served in the mess, where he happily ate with daily wage labourers and the vegetable sellers from the market below. All he thought about was cricket," Rinke says.

It's the kind of attitude that has taken Saha a long way in his laboured journey to the Indian team. It's the mindset to keep practising his craft - without needing external motivation, per Bhowmick - that's helped him stay undeterred on his path during the peak years of MS Dhoni, and after his mysterious shoulder injury in 2018 that nearly put his career in jeopardy.

Bhowmick says not a day went by during Saha's lengthy rehabilitation when he didn't visualise his return to the side. This, while Rishabh Pant used the chance to establish himself in the Test team with centuries in England and Australia. Yet there was not a sign of restlessness from Saha.

"If he was just a batsman, he'd have made it to the team 3-4 months ago, but because he was a wicketkeeper-batsman, the fitness is scrutinised even more. I always told him regain complete fitness and then only try to get onto the field. And I kept telling him I am sure he will get a chance, and he did," Bhowmick says.

The itch to play cricket again was so strong that it eventually led him back to the field in West Indies - representing India A in July-September this year. Two fifties in three innings there, earned him his spot back in the senior squad but not in the XI. While the management stated that there was an unwritten rule to give an opportunity to those who come back from a long injury, there was a feeling that the team had moved on, considering Saha was in 34 and Rishabh just 22. The baton appeared to have been passed, until Kohli sprung the surprise in October by bringing back Saha into the XI.

To his credit, the soon-to-be 35-year-old showed no signs that age had slowed him down behind the stumps, demonstrated rather vividly in the South Africa series when he flung himself on either side of the stumps to take a few breathtaking catches.

Considering Saha's age, and the fact that the Indian team still retains faith in Rishabh, the current arrangement comes with an asterix to it, denoting the temporariness of it all. And yet, as Saha - unperturbed by what lies ahead - gears up to keep wickets in the historic pink ball Test at his home ground, there's another great lesson of determination for Bhowmick to impart in Siliguri.

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