Wicketkeeping is a cricketing art that gets feeble acknowledgement while attention is bestowed upon batsmen and bowlers. It is a thankless role much akin to the ageing matriarch supervising the ancestral kitchen. Extra salt in the soup? Snide remarks would immediately stir the cauldron. It is the same with these willow-game specialists as a grassed catch can whip toxic comments. Ask Kiran More, who dropped Graham Gooch and then watched the England leader plunder 333 at Lord’s in 1990.
Yet, it is a decisive skill that demands respect and one that lends strength to a team. Based on who is donning those gloves, at times sage advice is given to the skipper and his colleagues in the slips. The odd caustic line may be fired at rival batsmen because glovemen are bustling with energy and have the proverbial itch to talk.
Essentially, the good ones also ensure that their palms stay adhesive, legs remain athletic and their torsos can levitate. Catching, gathering throws, effecting stumpings and run-outs, stopping probable byes and above all performing those endless squats for every delivery make a wicketkeeper’s job a strenuous one. He can’t move to cow corner and relax, and has to be switched on all through.
Syed Kirmani, acknowledged as India’s finest-ever stumper, always believed that you pick a wicketkeeper based on his or her skills with the big gloves and that any extra batting should be considered as a bonus.
But as squads looked for force multipliers, a wicketkeeper was no longer judged purely on exploits behind the stumps.
Cricket no longer eulogises players with just one core attribute. Batsmen need to field extremely well; the odd bowling would help, too. Bowlers can’t offer the excuse of being puny with their bats, and as part of the tail are expected to lash and not merely wag. And wicketkeepers can’t just restrict their flamboyance to those acrobatic takes and chirpy words; dash and panache should ripple through their bats, too.
In the last-mentioned category, India was privileged to feature M. S. Dhoni for a long time. He was the X-factor, both lightning hands and muscular bat. Above all, for a significant part of his career, he was Captain Cool. The 2007 ICC World Twenty20 and 2011 World Cup titles headline Dhoni’s stardust in limited-overs cricket, besides other trophies. Additionally, there are his exploits with Chennai Super Kings in the Indian Premier League (IPL).
Dhoni was a good player in Tests, from which he retired in 2014, but once he wore the blue or yellow shade, he was soaring in the zone of greatness. There was swagger and he was the sheriff having the last word in old Westerns. The man could hammer sixes and wink at pressure. As a wicketkeeper, he was remarkable. Aesthetics wasn’t his second skin, but he was splendidly effective, and those stumpings could give velocity a complex.
But once Dhoni took the Instagram route and left international limited-overs cricket earlier this year, India was gaping at a massive vacuum. Over the last six years, the legend’s absence may have been coped with adequately in Tests thanks to Wriddhiman Saha. The diminutive Bengal player was terrific with the gloves and as a lower-order batsman; he had grit as his ally.
However, in the sport’s abridged versions, Dhoni’s absence would be acutely felt. Yes, as a finisher, his strengths were waning in the last few summers, but his supreme wicketkeeping, the wisdom he shared with skipper Virat Kohli or the strategy dollops he offered to spinners will be missed.
Seen in that light, the current tour of Australia acquires deeper significance. It is India’s maiden outing in the post-Dhoni era. Coronavirus still lingers, but life has to stir, sport needs to breathe and cricket yearns for its soul. And just like India did and continues to do so while searching for the next Kapil Dev since the great man quit in 1994, the quest for the next Dhoni is very much on.
Legacies can never be replicated, but that impish desire to find a doppelgänger underpins the world at large. Among seam-bowling all-rounders, Ajit Agarkar, Irfan Pathan and now Hardik Pandya were all unfairly pushed into the Kapil zone. A similar exercise is being done to unearth a Dhoni clone, and that stride into hope has manifested in the manner in which the different outfits were named for the Australian tour.
Previously, Parthiv Patel and Dinesh Karthik, Dhoni’s younger contemporaries, found some breaks but couldn’t grab them. The focus is now entirely on K. L. Rahul, both the vice-captain and wicketkeeper in One-Day Internationals and Twenty20s, while Sanju Samson offers as an extra option as the second stumper in the latter. India is keeping one eye on Rahul while also spreading the basket wide, aiming at that potent combo of effective wicketkeeper and explosive batsman.
Rahul can walk into any team as a pure batsman, but he has kept wickets too in his formative years for Karnataka, especially in List-A games. Back then, he even opened with his friend and statemate Robin Uthappa, another aspirant for the batsman-cum-wicketkeeper slot. Later, Rahul stood up for India behind the stumps at home in Australia and away in New Zealand. He kept wickets in the opening bouts against Australia, and though India was humbled in Sydney, Rahul showed that he can be persisted with as a wicketkeeper.
The 28-year-old does have ability, but to slip into Dhoni’s massive shoes could be arduous. The former captain was seen as this magic dispenser when stress raged in packed venues, and it is up to Rahul to carve his own identity. Plus, it is an unfair comparison as Rahul would ideally keep wickets only in the shorter formats with Saha stepping into the whites when the Tests emerge.
In many ways, Rahul’s latest multifaceted role harks back to another Rahul – Dravid – who yielded to Sourav Ganguly’s request and kept wickets so that space could be found for the Yuvraj Singhs and Mohammad Kaifs when India wore the blue jersey. And with the latest Rahul being groomed for the role, it would only be fair that the selectors persist with him as it opens up an extra position in the XI that could be utilised for an all-rounder or an extra bowler.
With Rahul being the frontrunner, at the other end of the spectrum Samson awaits his turn. The Kerala lad can pulverise bowlers, but he needs to be consistent. In the recent IPL, while turning out for Rajasthan Royals, he hit his straps early and then went through a plateau. He is primarily a wicketkeeper, unlike Rahul, whose unfettered loyalty is linked to his bat. And lurking in the sidelines is Rishabh Pant, another aggressive batsman searching for that rare elixir of a persistent good run while being largely effective as a wicketkeeper.
More players could emerge in the coming years, but the Dhoni template will remain that distant horizon, within reach but always elusive. Virat Kohli’s men need a fresh talisman behind and in front of the wickets, and the first few weeks of December will hint at what lies in store and whether Rahul will fit the bill while the distant gaze is upon the 2023 ODI World Cup in India.
Dhoni blended a lake’s calm with an ocean’s fury while sporting a face that never betrayed his emotions. His is a hard act to follow, but India is trying and the first attempts will vest with Rahul and maybe Samson and later Pant. It will not be easy while India waits for a wicketkeeper-cum-marauder, a role that suited men like Romesh Kaluwitharana, Adam Gilchrist and Dhoni. A legend fades into the twilight and the young Turks get an opportunity to script fresh history. Hope floats.
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