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Saha gets the job done, sans flash

Like much of the rest of his cricket, Wriddhiman Saha's celebration on reaching a half-century was without show Associated Press

Five-day Tests might be under debate right now, but the last two times before this Test that two seasoned Bengal players played Eden Gardens Tests together five-day Tests weren't yet the norm. In 1952-53, when Pankaj Roy and Kohkhan Sen played against Pakistan, there used to be four-day Tests in India. In 1969-70, when Ambar Roy and Subrata Guha played together, India were playing six-day Tests. Forty-seven years later, when Wriddhiman Saha and Mohammed Shami came to bat together, India were still some way from their desired total of 325-330. The two added 35 runs in entertaining fashion to take India to 316 and deflate New Zealand's spirits, but this potentially match-sealing partnership between two Bengal players at the home of cricket in Bengal was witnessed by a disappointingly small Saturday crowd.

There are reasons for the small turnout. This is festival season and end of the month both at the same time. Salaries are running out, and the newer ones are being saved for Puja shopping, when everyone must have at least new clothes. The two Bengal players don't draw the same emotion from the locals those earlier ones did. Shami migrated to Bengal from Uttar Pradesh only after he was well into his development as a cricketer. Like many folk from UP and Bihar, he did so for employment. And Saha, to quote a local, is not "glamaraas" enough.

The biggest cheer during this Test so far has been for Sourav Ganguly, now the Cricket Association of Bengal president, as he spoke at a lunch-time discussion on day one. Saha can't match the pull of the last Bengal superstar or the charisma of India's last Test wicketkeeper, but the few that turned up saw their unglamorous wicketkeeper do a job for his team. He does the job by being inconspicuous behind the stumps, and with vital and timely contributions in front.

When Saha came in to bat on day one, memories of Kanpur - when he had become part of a collapse that was arrested by Ravindra Jadeja in the end - would have been fresh. When Saha came out to bat here, India had lost three wickets for 13 runs. More importantly, these three wickets had fallen in the lead-up to the new ball becoming available. Trent Boult was ready. Matt Henry was ready. This was a pitch different from the one in Kanpur, where there was no bounce on offer for the quicks. Here there was bounce, some seam, and India were going at well under three an over. India needed to arrest this collapse badly because a score 220-230 in the first innings hardly puts any pressure on the team batting second. And the collapse had to be arrested without getting bogged down, because the new ball might do tricks and New Zealand could have gone flat out with just 10 overs to stumps.

Saha attacked dextrously, hitting a six in the last over before the new ball. The shot was selected perfectly. He got one too full from Jeetan Patel and wristily lofted it over cow corner. In Kanpur Saha had been caught inside the line of a Boult delivery, but that didn't put him off his game plan. Saha likes to stay beside the line of the ball and score through the off side. He did that to two Boult deliveries before stumps to end the day with 14 off 22.

Still, having lost R Ashwin to a questionable umpiring call just before stumps, Saha had it all to do on the second morning against the new ball. He continued to bat enterprisingly, punishing errors, running hard, and then farming the strike with his Bengal team-mate, the last man Shami. Along the way, he wore one in approximately the same place as he did during his St Lucia hundred. Just like St Lucia he batted with a swollen forearm, but that clearly didn't take away the punch from his shots.

Towards the end Saha, in the company of Shami, had frustrated New Zealand enough to make them veer from their plans. He did so by playing out the first halves of overs, and then hitting boundaries when the field came up. One such was an inside-out beauty to clear long-off and bring up his fifty. As the dressing room applauded, he reacted - not with flashy celebrations, but a thumbs up. He had had a job, he had done it. But he shouldn't always have to do so.

The good news for the team is that the lower order is no longer a pushover. Since the start of the England tour of 2014, around the time this lower order came to its own, India's last four wickets have averaged 23.16, behind only England and Australia. The bad news is, India's top six wickets have averaged only 38.94 over this period, which is in the bottom half of the Test-playing nations. It shouldn't always be Saha risking injuries to rescue India. It shouldn't always be Ashwin showing the specialist batsmen how to defend. It shouldn't always be Ravindra Jadeja wielding his bat like a sword. The lower order might be due a failure.