Saha and Shami add new sheen to Bengal cricket

The citizens of this sports-loving metropolis, in the grip of approaching Puja festivities, have been passionately celebrating the Eden Gardens performances of two of their own – Wriddhiman Saha and Mohammad Shami — after India won the Test and series riding on the shoulders of these two cricketers.

HOME HEROES: Local stars Wriddhiman Saha (right) and Mohammed Shami amplified the Kolkata crowd’s joy with their exploits in the victorious Test at the Eden Gardens. Photo: K.R. Deepak

Saha’s unbeaten knocks of 54 and 58 gave the Indian lower-middle order the solidity while Shami, with his deceptive abilities with the ball, claimed three wickets in each innings to provide Bhuvneshwar Kumar the desired support on a pitch that produced some highly combative cricket.

It was a rare occasion as two gems of Bengal cricket outshone the rest with a clinical show that also saw Saha being named ‘man-of-the-match’.

Bengal has produced some fine cricketers in India’s Test history, beginning with stars of the local maidans like P.K. Sen, Shute Banerjee, Nirode Choudhary, Pankaj Roy and Dattu Phadkar. After a brief phase that saw Bengal go unrepresented in the Indian team, Ambar Roy, Subrata Guha, Pranab Roy, Ashok Malhotra, Arun Lal and Chetan Sharma made the local fans happy.

Lal, Malhotra and Chetan were not strictly from the ranks in Bengal just as Saba Karim and Prashant Vaidya were imports from Bihar and Vidarbha. In later years, Rohan Gavaskar took the Bengal route to play for India.

It was hard to comprehend how players like Gopal Bose, Barun Burman, Saradindu Mukherjee and Utpal Chatterjee did not get an extended look-in. Burman could not earn the India cap despite good showings in domestic cricket.

It was Dilip Doshi who earned a regular slot in the Indian team but then he made his debut at 32 and retired four years later. The left-arm spinner signed off by playing his last season for Saurashtra.

Emergence of Ganguly
Like Doshi, not a Bengal native in the true sense, Bhavnagar-born Devang Gandhi also won laurels away from his original State. Doshi’s departure coincided with Lal’s rise but the big thrust to cricket in Bengal came with the arrival of the ‘Maharaj’ Sourav Ganguly, who had a sensational debut at Lord’s in 1996.

Ganguly, who became one of India’s most influential captains, made the Test team a redoubtable one. He was a caring leader even if demanding on some occasions. Ganguly inspired a generation of players like Deep Dasgupta, Gandhi, Manoj Tiwary and Laxmi Ratan Shukla. Shukla is now the Sports Minister in the State government.

Shami is an ‘outsider.’ He chose Bengal after Uttar Pradesh did not recognise his talent but Saha is purely a local product, gritty, ambitious, determined and hugely focussed on serving the team long.

“He is improving,” said Ganguly about Saha’s overall cricket. “He is certainly getting better because it is reflected in his batting. He’s been around for a while and I always rated his keeping high.”

Saha spent time in M.S. Dhoni’s shadows but beat Parthiv Patel and Naman Ojha when the opportunity came his way.

Support from skipper Virat Kohli has worked wonders for Shami. His spells against New Zealand here highlighted his skills with the new and old ball. “He’s a very good bowler,” praised Ganguly. “He’s easily one of the best in the country. His pace and skills are exceptional.”

As Ganguly observed, Saha and Shami can “take Bengal cricket forward.” The Vision 2020 programme that Ganguly has envisaged, with V.V.S. Laxman as the batting consultant and Muttiah Muralitharan to hone the bowlers, is a grand project aimed at grooming and strengthening local talent with the Ranji Trophy title the ultimate target.

Saha, 31, and Shami, 26, can look forward to achieving that target.