A geyser in big gloves!

The dynamics of the modern game require a wicketkeeper to be also a useful batsman. This has led to a situation where at times wicketkeeping skills have been banished to the back seat with willow-wielding becoming the driving force. An analysis.

Adam Gilchrist, a capable wicketkeeper and an explosive bat.   -  AP

The celebrated cricket writer Sir Neville Cardus once wrote, “The umpire... is like the geyser in the bathroom; we cannot do without it, yet we notice it only when it is out of order.” 

That geyser analogy can be extended to wicketkeepers. And it is today more relevant than ever. From handing out purple and orange caps to the highest wicket-taker and highest run-scorer in the IPL, to cameras panning across to the bowler and the batsman; the leather thwackers and the cherry pickers hog the limelight. 

Standing behind the stumps then becomes a thankless job, lonely even. But as the game grew with wider willows, flatter wickets and probing leather, the approach to wicketkeeping changed with it. With sides scaling 300-plus in ODIs, and Test openers — India’s Virender Sehwag for instance — making mincemeat of bowling attacks, cricket everywhere saw batsmen dictating results. With their fingers on the collective pulse of the gentleman’s game, think tanks promptly made the shift from ’keeper-batsman to batsmen, who could hold fort behind the stumps. 

The Gilchrist Era

When a New South Wales player by the name Adam Gilchrist made his Test debut for Australia in 1999, the game was a far cry from the bedlam of Twenty20 cricket. He was replacing Ian Healy, and renowned as Healy was for his glovework standing up to the legendary leggie Shane Warne, his ODI and Test averages — 21 and 27 — indicated that batting was not quite his forte.

But Gilchrist was about to change all of that , and more. With a batting style anchored in unfettered aggression, he steamrolled opposition bowlers with a swagger hitherto unknown to the breed of keepers.

Here was a wicketkeeper who could bat — open the batting in limited overs cricket and be the finisher in Tests — and make both arts look ridiculously easy. 

An aggregate of over 5,000 runs in both formats at a strike rate of 80-plus, ‘Gilly’ ushered in an age where cricketers were no longer bifurcated as ’keeper who could bat, or a batsman who could keep — they had to be equally adept in front of the stumps and behind it.

Sample this from the number of cricketers who kept wickets for Australia between 1970-90.

Among the names in the list (See Table 1), only W. B. Phillips (1983-86) had a batting average of over 30. Rod Marsh (1970-84) and Ian Healy (1988-99) had batting averages just under 30. Although the nimble-heeled Marsh did register three fine centuries, batting lower down the order, it was a tally of 355 dismissals (catches + stumpings) — a world record then — that turned the spotlight on him. Ian Healy, number three on the list, had just made his debut and was still a rookie when compared to Marsh whose Test career straddled across 14 years.

Table 1

PlayerSpanMatchesRunsAverageCatchesStumpings
RW Marsh1970-198496363326.5134312
WB Phillips1983-198627148532.28520
IA Healy1988-1999119435627.3936629
SJ Rixon1977-19851339418.76425
KJ Wright1979-19791021916.84314
TJ Zoehrer1986-19871024620.50181
GC Dyer1986-1988613121.83222
JA Maclean1978-197947911.28180
HB Taber1966-19701635316.04564

 

But with limited-overs cricket making inroads, accompanied by coloured clothing, floodlights and the white kookaburra, a different style was emerging. The seeds were sown with the World Series Cricket revolution of the 1970s, and more than four decades later, it has perhaps grown into the flowering money tree — the Indian Premier League.

One-day cricket was reinventing itself , and that reflected in the mindset of the teams. Australia, for example, has used only six Test keepers since the beginning of 2000 (See Table 2). Prominent among the baggy greens is Adam Gilchrist, but what catches attention is the southpaw’s batting average — 46.63 — which is way above that of his predecessors. As one scrolls down the list, only P. M. Nevill (22.28) and G. A. Manou (21) have batting averages under 25. Batting has become an important tradecraft, and teams are abreast with the development.

Table 2

PlayerSpanMatchesRunsAverageCatchesStumpings
AC Gilchrist2000-200891513046.6336235
BJ Haddin2008-201566326632.982628
MS Wade2012-20172086931.03568
PM Nevill2015-20161746822.28612
TD Paine2010-2010428735.87161
GA Manou2009-200912121.0030
Statistics from 2000

 

To coach or not to coach is the question

Because of an increasing workload, most teams are resorting to a beefed up backroom staff to aid the players. India for instance, besides head coach Ravi Shastri, has also roped in Zaheer Khan and Rahul Dravid as consultants for overseas Test series in addition to the regular duo of Sanjay Bangar and R. Sridhar.

But this expanding support staff still begs the question whether a wicketkeeping coach must become the order of the day. And Darren Berry — one of Australia’s finest first-class ’keepers — is of the opinion that, “Batting is definitely important but in my eyes never at the expense of the best gloveman. Teams should definitely employ ’keeping coaches because unless you have been a ’keeper you have minimal if any idea as to how to coach one. It’s not a skill learnt out of a coaching manual. It is hands-on experience and observation that helps.”

India — two-time World Cup winner — and one of the most closely followed teams in international cricket today, has taken to this shift like fish to water. One need not look further than India’s Champions Trophy squad to ascertain if the above statement holds any water. Indian opener K.L. Rahul, who hurt his shoulder during a Test match against Australia, missed the flight to London. 

Manish Pandey, who replaced him, got injured leaving the selectors scraping for another replacement. Wicketkeeper-batsman Dinesh Karthik duly filled the vacancy. However, whether India would have preferred a fit Rahul to double up as a batsman-keeper is a question worth asking. 

India has experimented with as many as 12 wicketkeepers since 2000 (See Table 3). Former India captain M. S. Dhoni retired from Test cricket with a total of 294 dismissals (stumping + catches) with his batting average in the high thirties. Dhoni’s replacement, and incumbent Indian glovesman — W. P. Saha from his 25 Tests so far, has 50 catches and 8 stumpings to go with a batting average of 30-plus.

Table 3

PlayerSpanMatchesRunsAverageCatchesStumpings
MS Dhoni2005-201490487638.0925638
WP Saha2012-20172599333.10508
PA Patel2002-20162387833.765210
KD Karthik2004-20101649121.34455
D Dasgupta2001-2002834428.66130
SS Dighe2001-2001614115.66122
A Ratra2002-2002616318.11112
NR Mongia2000-200149919.8071
V Dahiya2000-200022 60
SS Karim2000-200011515.0010
NV Ojha2015-201515628.0041
MSK Prasad2000-2000184.0010
Statistics from 2000

 

This is in stark contrast to the Indian team of the late 1970s and 80s. Former India wicketkeeper, and a valuable member of the 1983 World Cup-winning squad, Syed Kirmani, reckons, “The advent of limited-overs cricket has brought a sweeping change to the wicketkeeping angle. They (India) wanted to add another all-rounder to strengthen the batting. Wicketkeeping can’t be given to a Rahul Dravid or a K. L. Rahul or a makeshift ’keeper like Uthappa. It has to be a specialist ’keeper.”

A look at the numbers from Kirmani’s era tells a telling tale (See Table 4).

Table 4

PlayerSpanMatchesRunsAverageCatchesStumpings
SMH Kirmani1976-198688275927.0416038
KS More1986-199349128525.7011020
FM Engineer1961-197546261131.086616
P Krishnamurthy1971-19715335.5071
B Reddy1979-19794389.5092
S Viswanath1985-19853316.20110
CS Pandit1986-1992517124.2142

 

The lesser number (seven) of Test ’keeping options notwithstanding, it’s the batting average that served as the precursor of times to come. Hailed as one of India’s greatest ’keepers, Kirmani lapped up 160 catches and effected 38 stumpings. The batting average though, hovered around the 20s, except for F. M. Engineer (35.85). In their defence, as batsmen, they had to deal with the renowned pace batteries of Australia, England and West Indies, and Pakistan. 

According to Kirmani, “He’s (wicketkeeper) the best guide to a fielder, a bowler and to the captain as well. When Dhoni was made captain of India, my reaction was — ‘This is the best thing to happen to Indian cricket’ — making a ’keeper a captain.”

But he adds a caveat: “They (India) are considering part-time ’keepers, who have better batting skills. That’s the trend now. For instance, Dravid was keeping wickets in the 2003 World Cup when Parthiv Patel was in the reserves. Patel lost a lot of ground because of being overlooked like that,” Kirmani said. 

However, he acknowledges the good work done by makeshift ’keepers. “There have been some stunning catches and stumpings effected by them, no doubt, but teams are missing out on quality glovework, many wicketkeepers have gone into the wilderness. Suffice to say, ’keeping has taken a backseat.”

Wicketkeeping coaches not new

Back in the days when the IPL was still taking baby steps, Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) — one of the franchsies — appointed John Buchanan, the successful former Australian coach, as the Head Coach. And Buchanan brought with him an entourage of coaches — Matthew Mott (assistant head), Andy Bichel (bowling), John Deeble (fielding), Brad Murphy (assistant), his son Michael Buchanan (strength trainer), Andrew Leipus (physio) and Adrian Le Roux (trainer). Also among them was former Queensland ’keeper Wade Seccombe, who was made in-charge of the wicketkeeping department.

While one may be at pains trying to comprehend the multiple-coaches theory, a ’keeping coach was particularly interesting. Although Buchanan was sacked after a disastrous season with Knight Riders, the idea stayed with the team which roped in former South Africa wicketkeeper Mark Boucher as a ’keeping consultant for IPL 8.

That said, India, by and large, has been averse to the idea of wicketkeeping coaches. And Berry avers that, “Cricket is a traditional game administered by generally much older people who do what they have always done and known. If you do what you have always done people will run past you quickly.”

Referring to the antipathy as a cultural phenomenon, he added, “Cultural change and evolution in cricket is a slow process. Twenty20 though, has been fantastic to break down barriers of tradition.”

Jack Russell, the England wicketkeeper, who hung up his boots in 1998, also thinks, “All teams should have a wicketkeeping coach, if only part time. All ’keepers no matter what age need guidance.”

Wicket-keeping — then and now

“Sadly, most ’keepers don’t practise enough these days as batting seems to be more important. It is a specialist craft and a real good ’keeper can change the complexion of a game with a piece of brilliance. Practise things you need to improve like doubling the catching amount on the non-preferred hand, diving practice, stumping in rough conditions etc., etc.,” Berry said.

Brilliant in all facets of glovework, Berry was especially known for his ability to stand up to medium-pacers for long periods without compromising efficiency. “(’Keepers) need to practise it (standing up) regularly, preferably in centre wicket sessions. Wear appropriate safety equipment to help with confidence. Facemask and even a baseball catcher’s chest guard under the cricket shirt if needed,” he said, adding that he would have loved to “have kept wickets to Muralitharan as it would have been a great challenge. Keeping to quality spin is the greatest test for any ’keeper.”

Closer home, Daljit Singh, former Services player, a wicketkeeper and incumbent chairman of the BCCI pitches committee, believes, “The fitness levels are much better today, but the ’keepers of yesteryear had better skills.”

“In our days, staying fit was something you did of your own volition. Now, it is a part of a player’s regime. I’ve seen great players like G. Viswanath and Sunil Gavaskar walk from one sight screen to the other on the morning of the match, and that used to be their warm-up," he added, reminiscing his playing days.

“There was a lot of emphasis on ’keeping to spinners, reading what they’re going to bowl. Every club had a leg-spinner... so the focus was on where your hand and head should be, how the body should be inclined and even the footwork,” Singh said, highlighting the nitty gritties of the art he honed during his playing days.

The 74-year-old still remembers the time his captain asked him to stand up to the stumps to a medium-pacer. “Surendranath, who played in the 1950-60s was one of the reasons why we introduced thigh pads in India. He was quite quick and was well-known for his inswingers,” he said.

“This one time, while I was with the Services, my captain asked me to stand up to Surendranath in the nets. I can’t forget that experience. We used to keep a lot in the nets; that’s probably what differentiates us from today’s ’keepers.”

While it is true that it’s not uncommon for modern ’keepers to juggle between two arts — keeping and batting — the “better skills” ought to be judged in the light of the numbers shown in Table 5. M. S. Dhoni, not particularly well-known for his technique behind the stumps, tops the ‘total-dismissal’ tally for Indian wicketkeepers.

Table 5

Players (India)MatchesStumpingsCatches
Dhoni9038256
Kirmani8838160
Saha26508

 

And the 36-year-old also leads the numbers in Test wins (See Table 6). It is unwise to read too much into every blip in the data for success as ’keeping depends on a number of factors — pitch, bowling attack, match situation — to name a few. The trend, at best, is reflective of the times the players performed in.

Table 6

Players (India)Test Matches (Won)StumpingsCatches
M.S.Dhoni3622110
Syed Kirmani15830
Wridhiman Saha14630

 

’Keeping coach: Not worth it

All said and done, Singh still feels, “On a tour, it is not worth taking a ’keeping coach along because there are already too many heads involved in the dressing room. You’ve kept wickets for 90 overs, and you’ve a keeping coach coming at you on top of the head coach, they could get into each other’s hair quite often. A very good fielding coach will keep aside some time for ’keeping drills... a fielding coach should know the drills,” he observed.

One-Day cricket caught traction in India after Kapil Dev and his team trumped the mighty West Indies in the 1983 World Cup final at Lord’s. Before that, it was Test cricket that ruled the roost and Singh said as much. “Earlier, it used to be only Test matches where teams preferred wicketkeeper-batsmen. But as One-Day Internationals started arriving on the scene, ’keepers were used as pinch-hitters. Australia’s Adam Gilchrist set the bar really high, and then Dhoni came. Batting has become important now. 

“Back in the day, Australia’s Donald Tallon, hailed as one of the country’s finest wicketkeepers, used to bat at No. 9 or No.10.”

Part-timers

India wicketkeeper-batsman Dinesh Karthik though, believes it is “imperative for a ’keeper to start batting because it is very hard to be a pure ’keeper and get away. However, sacrificing a ’keeper just to have an extra batsman is an idea that some teams are okay with, and others aren’t.”

But the 32-year-old reckons that a “part-time (’keeper) in Twenty20 is a double-edged sword because you could miss one stumping and that batsman may go on to win the match.

“But in accommodating a batsman as a ’keeper, we can play an extra bowler or an extra batsman. All Twenty20 games tend to be closely fought contests where, if a ’keeper misses a catch or gives away an easy single, it could take the game away from you,” he added.

That said, he’s open to the idea of a fielding coach donning the hat of a ’keeping mentor. “I do feel a fielding coach could definitely help a ’keeper. But given the demanding nature of the game, there’s only so much that a fielding coach can do.”

Karthik elaborated, “Like for instance in the IPL, where there are 20-24 players, it is very difficult for fielding coaches to attend to all the players and then come back to the ’keeper. You can’t really do justice, because the practice sessions last for a couple of hours and the nets happen in groups of three, each spending at least 20 minutes, so that’s about an hour which makes it hard for the fielding coach.”

Sharing his work experience with Team India’s fielding coach, Karthik said, “R. Sridhar of Team India is well versed with ’keeping as well. If the fielding coach has gone through the grind and has a lot of experience, then he can help the ’keepers too.”

The selection conundrum

Kirmani, during whose stint India put itself on the cricketing map, laments not leading the side in his prime. “During my playing days, the selection committee never considered me for captaincy because they didn’t know what wicketkeeping was all about. (Apparently), they thought it was an added burden on the ’keeper.”

Syed Kirmani, one of India’s wicketkeeping greats, says that a ’keeper is “the best guide to a fielder, a bowler and to the captain as well.”   -  Getty Images

 

However, the 67-year-old who played 88 Tests and 49 ODIs for India, thinks the current selection committee will just “nod their heads to the choice of the senior members of the team.” 

He said, “I would not like to comment on the committee’s pattern of selection, but I would assume that the best team is being selected. With all due respect to them, the selectors put together have less experience than the coach, captain and the players in the team.”

Around two decades ago, suggestions of hiring a wicketkeeping coach would perhaps have fallen on deaf ears, but with time, the natural glovesmen too have evolved, wielding the willow to their advantage. The ’keeper’s place today is as much behind the stumps as it is in front of it. And as the rigours intensify, specialist coaching, if not ‘the’ solution, could at least be a viable starting point in that shift.