Mr. Keeper, can you bat?

Mahendra Singh Dhoni... what’s his primary role, batting or keeping?-PTI ?

For some time now, wicketkeepers in many parts of the cricket world have been judged on bat-work not glove-work. Wisden tells us that wicketkeepers averaged 24 between 1877 and 2000, and 32 in the next 12 years. Even accounting for the inflation of batting averages over this period, it’s a significant statistic. By S. Ram Mahesh.

“To a good wicketkeeper much may be forgiven,” wrote P. G. Wodehouse, but the idea is expressed considerably less warmly these days. That is, if it’s expressed at all.

For some time now, wicketkeepers in many parts of the cricket world have been judged on bat-work not glove-work. Wisden tells us that wicketkeepers averaged 24 between 1877 and 2000, and 32 in the next 12 years. Even accounting for the inflation of batting averages over this period, it’s a significant statistic. It was long known that the pure glovesman had disappeared, taking with him the mutton-chop whiskers he cultivated on his cheeks and the patchwork gloves into which, to better protect his palms, he slipped steaks of meat. But it’s now clear that even the ’keeper-batsman who raised the level of his craft while swinging a subversive bat (Alan Knott, Rod Marsh, Jeff Dujon, Wasim Bari, Syed Kirmani, Ian Healy, Jack Russell, Adam Parore and Mark Boucher, for example) is facing obsolescence.

This had been a swirling, shapeless feeling for a while; the events of the last few months, in India and South Africa, have helped it settle and crystallise.

M. S. Dhoni’s crackling, match-winning 224 in the first Test against Australia, made on the counter-attack from No. 6, had a few experts claiming he was the greatest-ever, or at least on a par with Adam Gilchrist. Forgotten were his struggles in England and Australia, in 2011 and early 2012. His wicket-keeping broke down in England, with the ball wobbling after it passed the stumps. Inadequate footwork, stiff arms and shoulders, and bruised fingers made his normally solid, if conservative, glove-work a liability. Although he was better in Australia, the longstanding tendency not to go for edges between him and first slip continued. He was at a disadvantage in one sense: he hadn’t much opportunity to keep to spin, which he normally excels at.

But even at this facet of ’keeping, which many rate harder than standing back, his form had dipped. Perhaps the demands of captaincy were affecting his concentration, perhaps the fatigue of playing non-stop across three formats was doing its bit, perhaps his basic technique had deteriorated, for he wasn’t consistently staying low and letting his hands rise with the bounce of the ball. Whatever the reason, he erred more, standing up. The high-risk, split-second stumping, seen on the streets, but which Dhoni brought to the highest level, collection and stump-breaking in one motion, wasn’t beyond him. Nor was the odd thick-edged catch. But he seemed less secure, more hard-handed than usual, and continues to do so.

Adam Gilchrist handled the slippery dual role of batting and keeping adeptly.-AKHILESH KUMAR

Wriddhiman Saha, who played the fourth Test in Adelaide which Dhoni sat out because of a ban, showed what India had missed over the previous year. Saha’s work behind the stumps was clean, organised, economic: the ball sunk into his gloves, bringing a certain neatness to the action; and because their wicketkeeper was covering more ground on his feet and in the air, the slips spread wider, becoming a greater catching threat. He wasn’t severely tested up to the stumps, but Saha did enough in that match — and, by several accounts, in domestic cricket — to suggest that he was the superior all-round glovesman. He made an unobtrusive but forceful case for the spot.

Dhoni was still the more explosive batsman, especially at home. He might have struggled the previous year, making 584 runs in 13 Tests at an average of 27.80. He might have been unconvincing overseas (barring three innings in the seven straight defeats in England and Australia, the tail had begun with him). And Saha might have contributed appreciably to a fighting partnership with Virat Kohli in Adelaide. But despite all this, the argument that Dhoni offered more value with the bat than Saha, as a game-changer, had merit. In staying with Dhoni, the Indian cricket establishment showed which side of the wicketkeeper-batsman divide it was on. It wasn’t a straightforward, binary decision, for there was also the matter of Dhoni being captain. It mightn’t even have been a cricket-only decision. Mohinder Amarnath’s allegation that the selectors were overruled by BCCI President N. Srinivasan when they wanted to drop Dhoni can be seen many ways. But this much can be said: had Saha been preferred, it would have been rare evidence that quality wicket-keeping and its attendant advantages are valued after all.

AB De Villiers’ situation is subtly different. It is, however, an even plainer indication of how the role is seen these days. While Dhoni’s continuance in the Test side owed itself to his batting, he was always a specialist ’keeper. De Villiers is primarily a first-rate, top-order batsman who, because he is such an exceptional athlete, can also keep wicket. When he stepped in for Boucher, whose career ended after a horrific eye injury in England last year, it was supposed to be a short-term thing. But South Africa persisted despite not finding immediate success. Till he made his first century as ’keeper, in the third Test at Perth earlier this year, his batting had lacked the refreshing imagination and stroke-making class it’s known for. He appears to have grown into the job since. Against Pakistan, he became the first cricketer to make a hundred and claim at least 10 dismissals in a Test; indeed his 11 dismissals equalled Russell’s world record. All this while, Thami Tsolekile, widely viewed as the best glovesman in South Africa, has waited on the outside.

The reasons for teams to choose the better batsman over the better ’keeper — indeed sometimes even convince a batsman to take up ’keeping — aren’t difficult to understand. Teams are forever chasing balance. And with the scarcity of genuine all-rounders, it is the wicketkeeper’s spot that captains and coaches eye. Apparently it’s easier to develop a ’keeper who can get by than a bowler who can take wickets or control runs. It’s true that bowling is an act of creation, ’keeping, one largely of reaction; and, from first principles, creation demands more than reaction. But it’s equally true that very few recognise the creative, wicket-making potential of top ’keepers, who are predatory whether diving and snatching half-chances or tearing down a batsman’s stumps from behind for the slightest of mis-steps. They also miss fewer chances.

What goes against the ’keeper is the difficulty in measuring his influence. His effect on his bowlers’ and fielders’ morale, or on the opposition batsmen’s confidence, can be experienced, but not estimated. The true worth of a ’keeper is elusive to pin down statistically as well. From a glance at the scoreboard, it’s easy to ascertain the runs made and wickets taken; not as easy to know the opportunities fluffed and their expense. Even at the highest level, where nothing goes unmeasured, captains and coaches are more aware of the runs a ’keeper scores than those he costs. The modern-day defensive-minded captain prefers the currency of runs to wickets — to him the risk of having a ’keeper who can just get by with the gloves is more manageable than the risk of having one who can just get by with the bat.

Gilchrist is seen as the man who, unintentionally, brought about the current state of affairs. Coaches in awe of what he could do at No. 7 wanted men who could do the same for them. But what he did with the gloves escaped them — he wasn’t as refined as Healy, his method wasn’t as repeatable especially towards the end of his career, but he was, for most part, a curious, outrageous blend of the safe and the spectacular. Gilchrist’s eye, concentration, and athleticism allowed him to adjust incredibly late. Off-balance and out of position, he could re-arrange his body at the last instant. Yet he was seen as a lesser ’keeper: and if Australia was doing it and dominating world cricket, went the reasoning, it was worth copying.

England overlooked Chris Read and James Foster, silky, consummate ’keepers both. In favour was Geraint Jones because reportedly Duncan Fletcher, now India’s coach, liked his attitude and batting. Jones was ragged-gloved when he started, but improved — and was ironically dropped because the runs had stopped. Matt Prior was the next iteration of Jones, an even better batsman and a faintly poorer ’keeper. He was forced to salvage his glovesmanship after he was dropped, and it’s a measure of the quality of work he has done with Bruce French, England’s ’keeping coach, that he is now the closest thing to Gilchrist. But if Prior’s ’keeping were to continually improve and his batting become a marginally lesser force, would he hold his place?

This isn’t a uniquely modern phenomenon, this oscillating balance between ’keeping and batting skills. Dujon, for instance, was once rated by Viv Richards as the best young batsman in the Caribbean. But to break into the great West Indies side, it helped that he could keep. Dujon is now remembered for his acrobatics, his ability to hang in the air, parallel to the ground, his unorthodox, never-seen-before-or-since talent to catch one-handed. Another West Indian, Clyde Walcott of the Three W’s, went the other way, surrendering the gloves to be remembered as a supremely punishing batsman.

Andy Flower and Alec Stewart were both old-school batsmen-keepers. The under-rated Flower, in fact, has a finer record than Gilchrist and was a more accomplished (if less devastating) batsman than the Australian (Gilchrist was the better ’keeper though). In England, Stewart’s batting meant Russell didn’t play as much, but the drop in quality of ’keeping wasn’t considerable. Even Knott and Healy were perceived by some to have kept out better gloves-men in Bob Taylor and Darren Berry because of their batting. That’s debatable, but the point is that ’keepers have always been selected on both their primary and their secondary skills. What’s different now is the disturbing tendency, encouraged by limited-overs cricket, to all but disregard one of them. Coaches and captains, however, will do well to remember that Gilchrist cared more deeply about his ’keeping than his batting. He saw himself as a ’keeper first — that, in many ways, permitted him the liberty to bat the way he did.