Chances are that KS Bharat will never get a Test cap. He might not play next week in Mumbai, if Wriddhiman Saha plays, and then Rishabh Pant will take back the gloves. Yet, on Saturday in Kanpur, he showed off the incredible depth of Indian cricket by coming on as a substitute and pulling off three sensational dismissals on a difficult pitch for keeping wicket. Much like Shreyas Iyer, who got in because of four missing batters – Virat Kohli, KL Rahul, Rohit Sharma and Hanuma Vihari – and scored a century on Test debut.
The thing is, Bharat is no spring chicken. He turned 28 in October but has been kept out by a 24-year-old and a 37-year-old, who have both been phenomenal wicketkeepers for India. Pant is an absolute game-changer with the bat, the only Indian keeper to have scored centuries in Australia and England. He turned around India’s tour of Australia with the bat, and then repeated it at home against England. Saha is arguably the best pure glovesman in the world, all due respect to Nathan Lyon’s backing of his former captain and mate. Saha himself might have played more Tests had it not been for MS Dhoni.
Bharat, who had been recognised as Saha’s successor by the previous selection committee led by MSK Prasad, takes after Saha as a glovesman. Back in 2018, when India sent Dinesh Karthik as the back-up for Tests in England, Bharat was next in line as the India A wicketkeeper on the shadow tour. However, injuries in the Test side meant India probably wanted someone who had been in the spotlight before, so they fast-tracked Pant.
Pant grabbed his chance with a hundred at The Oval, and Bharat, like many an India cricketer, had no choice but to bide his time. It’s only now that Pant has taken rest, and Bharat has made it to the main squad. Saha’s stiff neck put Bharat on a Test field for the first time.
If his clean takes on balls shooting low hadn’t done it already, Bharat’s sensational catch off a grubber to give India their first breakthrough of the third day grabbed the eyeballs. Not only did it practically scoot along the ground, it was an intended offbreak that didn’t turn and took a healthy outside edge. Bharat followed the movement with his hands while staying low enough for the catch. His left knee was on the ground when he completed it. The preparation for the catch was important: R Ashwin had bowled this with a parallel seam, which meant he wanted to give it the best chance to go straight on. Bharat didn’t commit to an offbreak as much as the batter, Will Young, batting on 89, did.
The next one was a quick Axar Patel delivery that turned more than Ross Taylor expected and took a big deviation. He was perhaps helped by the slow pitch here, allowing him time to move with the deviation. The upper body beautifully moved towards point with the ball as he took it with soft hands. This came after what technically might be called a reprieve to Taylor when he jumped down the pitch and survived. Quite incredible, that a blinded Bharat had still tracked the line of the ball as it went between Taylor’s legs, but an inside edge moved it away from Bharat’s gloves. Dropped catch, some might call it.
Bharat followed that up by stumping Tom Latham off a bottom edge, watching the ball till the last moment and displaying quick hands. That Bharat did all this on a day that India could afford no errors makes it all the more special. It was a slow, low pitch on which New Zealand’s openers had put on 151.
One of three things can happen next week. Saha doesn’t recover, and Bharat officially gets Test statistics despite having done a great job to help India turn it around in Kanpur. Saha recovers, and takes his place back. Saha recovers, and India decide to look to the future and put Bharat in for Mumbai and back-up for Pant in South Africa. The luxury for the team management is that in all the circumstances they will have a man well-equipped for the job.