The great artists of the game

ONE of the great joys in my long career has been watching the great artists of the game — wicketkeepers. In many ways they are the heart and soul of the team. More often than not they go unnoticed.

BOB SIMPSON

ONE of the great joys in my long career has been watching the great artists of the game — wicketkeepers. In many ways they are the heart and soul of the team. More often than not they go unnoticed.

Alan Knott was the best of the English wicketkeepers for he seldom fumbled with the ball. -- Pic. LAURENCE GRIFFITHS/GETTY IMAGES-

Like umpires you only become aware of them, if they made a mistake. Indeed, they are the first to be picked and considered to be important. That was of course before the selectors and the media started to try and turn them into all-rounders.

Once wicketkeepers were judges solely on their glovemanship and if they could get a few runs, as many could, that was a bonus.

Now unfortunately they seem to be judged more on run-making ability rather than their talents to hold on to catches, make stumpings and run outs and miss almost no chances.

A great pity this and I have no doubt that this has led to the falling standards of wicketkeeping world wide. Unfortunately in my view there is not one wicketkeeper who I would class as great or even exceptional in Test cricket at present.

And the reason for this is, wicketkeepers are no longer accepted on their talents solely as glove men. While I may be old fashioned I would still always go for the 'keeper who will miss less chances, on the basis that good or great batsman who have been given a second chance will score more runs than the wicketkeeper, who has been selected purely because he might get more runs than another candidate who is the better 'keeper.

I have always been interested in statistics believing, they, over a medium range, are the true arbiter of a player's talents.

For instance if a batsman averages 30, 40, or 50 and beyond over say three years you know just where he stands in the order of performances. The same can be judged about bowlers who average 20, 25, 30 or 35 say per 100 wickets.

Fielders and wicketkeepers must also be judged on their percentages of mistakes.

Syed Kirmani was a superb wicketkeeper as he handled the Indian spinners with amazing proficiency. -- Pic. ADRIAN MURRELL/GETTY IMAGES-

Unfortunately it must be said that wicketkeepers are missing many more than they once did, even allowing the fact that they are standing back, the easiest part of keeping to the prevalent national attacks these days based on pace.

Why? The obvious factor is less talented 'keepers, and the other I feel is wicketkeepers stand too deep and do not cover the ground sideways as they once did.

Less talented wicketkeepers are generally divers when they try to catch wide of their body. Great wicketkeepers inevitably have the ability to stay on their feet and take wide catches on the run and two handed.

Good wicketkeepers in the past stood much closer to pace than they do now. They liked to take the ball waist high, now glovemen invariably standing further back like to take the ball on the drop just below the knees.

This method is like a "three" edged sword. Firstly there is more chance nicks will fall short. As 'keepers take up a defensive position, bowlers would rather see a catch dropped, than see a nick drop short because the 'keeper is too deep.

Secondly by standing deeper the ball has more chance to deviate, particularly down the leg side. This means many catches will be missed because the 'keeper cannot cover the extra distance.

Thirdly and the most vital of all, standing too deep mucks up the pattern of the slips field.

This is compounded even more if the wicketkeeper likes first slip to field closer to him, thus meaning he doesn't have to cover as much room on the off side. Inevitably the first slip moves deeper, further dragging the slips cordon deeper and destroying the angle of the slips cordon.

First slip should be only one metre behind the 'keeper, second slip even with the 'keeper and the rest a metre further up also.

This gives them the required stagger so that they won't hinder their mate on either side. The angle from first slip to gully should be approximately 45 degrees. It is vital for slip fielders to give themselves space. More catches are dropped by fieldsmen being too close together than too wide.

Wally Grout and myself have been given the credit for modernising the slips formation.

In South Africa, in 1957-58, the first tour for both of us, we decided, I should field wider. Very early on tour I took up my first slip position a little closer to Wal than he liked.

He let me stay there for two or three balls before hissing out of the side of his mouth. "I still prefer girls, Simmo move over," or words to that effect. It worked brilliantly. Wal and I took part in over 30% of the wickets taken on that tour.

From then on all Australians have staggered the slips cordon and with due modesty have produced the best and most consistent slippers.

I have seen some great wicketkeepers, all varying in style, build and height.

Of the English wicketkeepers, I rate Allan Knott the best. He was a lovely mover and had very soft hands and seldom fumbled with the ball.

His 'keeping to Derek Underwood's nearly medium pace left hand finger spinners on a wet wicket was fabulous.

Godfrey Evans was also exciting particularly standing over the stumps to Alec Bedser's fast medium swingers.

India's Kirmani was superb and his keeping to the spinners on a turning, bouncy dust bowl was a revelation.

Whether it was Bedi, Chandrasekhar or Prasanna, three distinctly styled spinners, he handled them with amazing proficiency.

Australia had three outstanding wicketkeepers during my time. I didn't see Don Tallon keep. But those who did including "The Don" rate him the best.

In recent times Ian Healy has been outstanding both against spin and pace.

He wasn't the most natural I have seen, but made up for this with dedication and hard work.

He was a disaster on his first tour to Pakistan. But within 12 months nailed down his spot and was never really challenged again.

His keeping to Shane Warne bowling around the wicket was great. He was also the chattiest of all 'keepers.

My favourite however was Wally Grout. From the advantage position of first slip I marvelled at his consistency. He dropped so few that I can still remember the ones he did.

While not as chatty as Ian Healy he was good in the one liners. His best, undoubtably to Jackie McGlew, the South African captain.

Jackie was three ways through compiling what was then the slowest Test century ever, 545 minutes, when the crowd started to applaud for no apparent reason.

Jackie turned to the crouched Grout and said, "must be some sort of record Wal." Without moving and only lifting his eyes the "Grizzling grunter" replied: "I bet it is a bloody long playing one."