Kirmani, 'keeper par excellence

WICKET-KEEPERS have always had a vitally important role to play in Test cricket. A good 'keeper can inspire a side, an inadequate one can mar the best of squads.

A tremendous catch at a critical juncture can lift a team, a bad miss can send it out of the game. The very nature of the job means the 'keepers are always in the game, and, their role assumes importance when it comes to keeping the morale of the side high too.

In this column I will talk about a very special 'keeper Syed Kirmani, whom, without being biased, I rate as the finest wicket-keeper I have seen. 'Kiri' was just outstanding.

Of course, if you want to ask me about the best batsman-wicket-keeper it would have to be Adam Gilchrist - that explosive batsman from Australia, who is 'keeping efficiently.

However, when it comes to a pure, classical wicket-keeper, Kirmani has to be the first in my list. I have had the privilege of watching Kirmani from very close quarters and there were times when I was just astonished at his ability. He could gather the ball so effortlessly, and some of his stumpings have stayed in my mind.

Kirmani could whip the bails off in a flash and often the batsman would just have lifted his rear foot off the crease. He had fast hands, and we just marvelled at his reflexes.

The sternest test for a wicket-keeper lies in how well he does the job standing up and Kirmani was simply superb. Everything came to him naturally, and it did appear that he was born to keep. He kept wickets brilliantly to Bhagwat Chandrasekhar and that has to be the ultimate challenge for any 'keeper. Chandra could extract disconcerting bounce, apart from having the ability to spin the ball viciously. He could be erratic as well, and a wicket-keeper had to be blessed with special skills to handle Chandrasekhar.

Not that he was any less against the pacemen. Kirmani had the knack of converting half chances.

I can recall that spectacular catch he grabbed, diving to his right to dismiss Faoud Bacchus in the World Cup '83 final. It was a critical stage of that unforgettable match, and Kirmani had risen to the occasion, like he always did.

His catches on the leg-side were no less spectacular. He could fly sometimes, and I remember him picking up that spellbinding catch, diving to almost where leg-slip would have been to get rid of Muddasar Nazar off Kapil Dev.

The Pakistani had reasons to feel that he had played a perfectly legitimate leg-glance and imagine his shock when Kirmani produced that sensational effort. It was a catch to beat all catches.

Kiri was extremely fit and flexible and could go through a long day without feeling the strain. Wicket-keeping calls for great fitness, and tremendous powers of concentration, since a 'keeper has to focus on every ball.

Kiri was such a useful performer with the bat too. He was unorthodox, but his hand-eye coordination was incredible and he bailed India out of trouble so many times. He was a man for crisis situations.

He faced the fastest of bowlers fearlessly, and never really hesitated to take them on. Kiri was the kind of cricketer who loved challenges. In Australia once, he went in as a night-watchman, but went on to make a fighting hundred. His methods with the bat might never have delighted the purists, but he had a very effective style. Kiri could play according to the situation and did provide balance to the Indian side.

Kiri made a hard job appear easy. He was such a cheerful person to have around that he had the knack of making us forget our worries on the ground.

I remember when I first made it to the Indian squad, he was a senior cricketer by then and an accomplished one at that. But he went out of his way to make me comfortable. He was a simple man, and despite his extraordinary abilty with the gloves, had no airs about him.

And he was such an entertainer in the dressing room, invariably coming up with a great joke, and actually, there was never a dull moment when he was around. He was and remains a wonderful character. He continues to remain a warm human being, and I am delighted that he is giving something back to the game as a noted coach. With his knowledge and passion for cricket, Kirmani can contribute a lot.

Before Kirmani, Farokh Engineer, who served India for a longer period, was an attacking batsman, and a flashy wicket-keeper. As far as wicket-keeping ability goes, I would rate Kirmani higher.

Those were the days when wicket-keepers would find it extremely hard to break into the side, and once they found a place, they could stay in the Indian team for four to five years, and in Kiri's case, more than that.

That was also the era of of the great wicket-keepers. We had Rod Marsh, Deryck Murray, and Syed Kirmani playing at almost the same time. Jeff Dujon arrived later on and these were men who could make a difference. Apart from their 'keeping, they could make crucial runs with the bat and were sources of great strength to their respective sides.

And after Kirmani, Kiran More and Nayan Mongia, both of whom served India with some distinction, were efficient 'keepers, who could bat usefully as well. However, Kirmani was in a different league altogether.

Things took a turn for the worse in the Indian wicket-keeping scenario, especially after Mongia found little favour with the selectors.

In the last four years, we have seen so many 'keepers doing the job for India. The names just go on and on - Saba Karim, M. S. K. Prasad, Vijay Dahiya, Sameer Dighe, Deep Dasgupta. There was a need to have a settled man with the gloves, especially in Test cricket for wicket-keeping is a specialist's job. It is hard to force someone into 'keeping.

It is in this context that Parthiv's Patel promise is so heartening. This boy has so much talent for one so young. Technically, he cannot be faulted. He is doing most things right for a 'keeper, while his temperament has been exemplary.

Watching Parthiv Patel 'keep wickets for India in the Chennai Test, I felt confident that the country had, at last, unearthed somebody who could serve India for a long, long time.

With the bat too, he has displayed the right attitude and appears compact at the crease. Parthiv has plenty of cricket ahead of him, and he has to be nursed carefully.

India also has Ajay Ratra, who has not performed too badly in the chances provided to him. Even as Parthiv is encouraged, Ratra should not be dumped completely.

India, the land of the great spinners, has a rich tradition in wicket-keeping and it should be maintained. Parthiv is the big hope.