'Best in the world' Saha replaces Pant for first South Africa Test
Wriddhiman Saha will play his first international match in 22 months after India captain Virat Kohli confirmed that young wicketkeeper-batsman Rishabh Pant was being dropped for the first Test of India's home season.
"Yes, Saha is fit and fine to go, and he's going to start for us, this series, and his keeping credentials are there for everyone to see," Kohli said at a press conference the day before the start of the first Test against South Africa, to be played in Visakhapatnam. "He's played well for us whenever he's got a chance, with the bat also, and it was unfortunate that he was out for such a long period because of an injury, and according to me he's the best keeper in the world, so in these conditions, with what he's done in the past, he starts for us."
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Pant had stepped into the breach left by unfortunate injuries to Saha, which put him out for way longer than originally anticipated. Pant took the spot with centuries in England and in Australia, the only India wicketkeeper to have done so in either of the countries.
However, Pant has come in for criticism in recent times for his shot selection in limited-overs cricket. India coach Ravi Shastri has called for a "rap on the knuckles", and batting coach Vikram Rathour has spoken about the importance of being fearless without being careless. Captain Virat Kohli has also spoken of how youngsters wouldn't get chance after chance in the highly competitive Indian sides.
Pant's limited-overs form, however, might not be the reason for his omission after all. With Kohli saying Saha was the best pure wicketkeeper in the world, and with Indian spinners difficult to keep to on Indian pitches, the door was left open for Saha, who turns 35 this October.
Kohli said Saha didn't make it to the XI in the West Indies because they wanted to give Pant a few more opportunities while they made sure Saha was absolutely ready.Saha was always going to be someone that we would back as a pure keeper in Test cricket, and he's done well under pressure situations also in the past. So it was just about finding the right opportunity and moment to bring him back in
"We felt like Rishabh, given the opportunities, had done well, and although Saha was almost going to start [in the West Indies], we felt it was better to just let him ease back into things rather than just forcing him into starting immediately," Kohli said about the selection in the West Indies. "We all felt that he's just come back, and although he's keeping well, he's batting well, but it's fair to give Rishabh a few more opportunities because of what he's done in the past season for us.
"But yeah, look, Saha was always going to be someone that we would back as a pure keeper in Test cricket, and he's done well under pressure situations also in the past. So it was just about finding the right opportunity and moment to bring him back in, and you need to be wary of those things in a team environment where you understand when to bring a player back, and when to give another guy more opportunities. I think these are very delicate things, you can always look at it in hindsight, whether the timing was right or not, but just go with your gut feel, along with the management, and then you take a call and stand by your decision.
"I feel now is the right time for Saha to come back in, get into his zone, and then we know what he can do with the gloves and with the bat as well under pressure situations."
Another comeback that was confirmed by Kohli in his pre-match press conference was that of R Ashwin, who is yet to play international cricket since he injured himself during the Adelaide Test win last December. He is not part of the limited-overs teams anymore, and was left out of the Tests in the West Indies where Ravindra Jadeja was India's only spinner.
"Yes, Ashwin will start. Ashwin and Jadeja, both will start here," Kohli said. "Look, Jaddu, we felt, was in a better zone, as far as him performing overseas and what he's done in the past season for the team, so yeah, from that point of view, he started in West Indies. But look, wherever the conditions provide us to go ahead with two spinners, obviously Ash is going to be a threat, and in home conditions, with his batting credentials, and the way he bowls as well, he's always going to be starting with Jadeja, so that was a no-brainer for us. But backing Jadeja to play in West Indies, the reason was the kind of season he had, and the overseas performance that he's put in in the past as well."
India XI for first Test: Virat Kohli (capt), Ajinkya Rahane (vice-capt), Rohit Sharma, Mayank Agarwal, Cheteshwar Pujara, Hanuma Vihari, R Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Wriddhiman Saha (wk), Ishant Sharma, Mohammed Shami