The new-age WICKETKEEPER

Once an oddball, always an oddball. That's how the wicketkeepers were referred to in the past. Then came the flamboyant Adam Gilchrist and changed it all, writes S. Ram Mahesh.

Long slighted for a decision to ignore the glory to be had with bat or ball, and pursue instead an arcane art, the wicketkeeper had had enough. From the days of Blackham's close-trimmed beard and negligible gloves, to Tallon and his collapse like a "pocketknife" (Ray Robinson) into his crouch, through to Evans's whiskery adroitness up to the stumps, the keeper was the kook, the nutter, the oddball.

Then came Marsh and Knott, Dujon and Kirmani, Taylor and Bari. Compliments still arrived from left field — `Ah, didn't notice you today, absolutely spiffing old boy'. This after countless leaps in front of first slip's nose, and many a last-gasp adjustment to rein in something that turned and bounced, or skipped or slid.

The purity of their art still beyond the comprehension of philistines, who craved runs and wickets, they took — some willingly, others not quite so — to batting. Yet the willow was used as a means of subversion. Runs were not so much made as they were sneaked. Once an oddball, always an oddball?

Then came Gilchrist and changed it all. Replacing the best gloveman of the decade, the left-hander forced critics who thought him too unwieldy a keeper to reconsider their description of the job. Behind the stumps, Gilchrist doesn't quite possess the technical finesse of Ian Healy or Victoria's ageing Darren Berry — considered by some to be a better gloveman than even Healy. But, what the six-foot-one-inch Gilchrist lacks in polish he makes up with athleticism and only recently has he dropped clangers.

The New South Welshman turned Western Australian has handled the wicketkeeper's best mate and toughest challenge, the leggie Warne admirably. To every wile of the portly bowler, Gilchrist has stayed low, moved strong and refrained from making a fool of himself — no mean feat. But, it is as an aggressor with the bat, violently wrestling the match from the opposition with the tail in whites or at the top in yellows, that he defied convention. Former captain Steve Waugh called him a "once in a generation" cricketer.

Battling a slump at 34, with naysayers indicating the beginning of the end, Gilchrist rested and returned to his stirring best in the VB series. Sri Lanka was slammed around the dial for 116 at Perth — a throwback to his salad days.

"To step back in and have to really take it on has been exciting and has got my energy back," he said after the innings. Records have accrued, attacks have been demolished, and the man with ears that stick out has laid claim to being the best keeper-batsman ever. But `The Greatest?'

There have been finer glovemen than him, but none has come close to the package deal he offers. Fifteen hundreds despite chores with the big gloves, an average of over 50 and all this at a frenetic pace of 82 runs every hundred balls.

Rarely does one man change a facet of the game in a career span; Gilchrist has done just that.

So when Kamran Akmal, 24, drove repeatedly through the covers in Karachi, where `batsmen' had failed in conditions that favoured swing and cut, it was merely an affirmation that things had indeed changed. Thirty-nine for six is when the dressing room — never the neatest place — is strewn with the whites and the protectors of fast disappearing batsmen, awash with disappointment, and on the throes of panic. In short, a hellhole. It's worse in the middle, with corner-of-mouth questions of ability and parentage adding to the more severe examination of skill and character. Having walked out to this, Akmal scratched out his guard and proceeded to play a defining innings, a counter attack of derring-do and uncommon skill.

"The Mohali century was probably my best one, but this is also a very good one because we were in serious trouble at 39 for six. Thankfully we have managed to make a decent score because of my batting," he said after his 113 took Pakistan to 245. Three days later his team won.

In the second Test in Faisalabad, Mahendra Singh Dhoni fell two short of 150, after rescuing India. Not bad for a purported slogger.

Dhoni, one of modern cricket's few longhairs, has played just six Tests, and snapping to judgment on his glovework is unfair. But he has improved since being found out during the one-dayers in Sri Lanka.

Standing up to Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh is among the stiffest of tests, and no one since Nayan Mongia has acquitted himself well. By staying in the side through his batting, Dhoni gives himself a chance.

Akmal is the most technically accomplished gloveman of the three, built more along the compact contours of the past masters. His lower centre of gravity allows him to hug the ground and power either way. Like Gilchrist, he plays for a side, which has the range of bowling that creates chances.

Interestingly, all three have come through the abridged version, where skills with the mitts aren't tested as harshly. In the first Test in Lahore, Akmal had made the fastest century by a wicketkeeper. Unable to break through when the old firm of Rashid Latif and Moin Khan shuffled the big gloves between them, Akmal made 2005 — his first year as first choice — count with five international centuries. The Pakistani is more Gilchrist than Dhoni with the bat. While the bruiser from Jharkhand chooses his strokes — the reverse straight drive, which is the paddle sweep to long stop, and the flat-bat flay to long off — from the iconoclast's batting manual, Akmal stays within the lines.

Dhoni goes for the gargantuan, almost swinging himself out of his socks with the effort, but has the ability to intersperse mind-numbing hooks of Akhtar with periods of calm garnering. Sample this on the course of play in Faisalabad: "He (Akhtar) was bowling very fast. It was actually the fastest deliveries I've played till now," said Dhoni.

"I just wanted to hang in there and get used to the pace and bounce of the wicket and soon decided to take a risk. I had to play my strokes at some point and I decided it was the right time to go for it."

Akmal's power is concealed in his well put together technique. Like Gilchrist he gets into impeccable position while driving. While the left-hander's high-on-handle hold lengthens his hitting levers, Akmal prefers to generate his momentum by stepping into the ball.The wicketkeeping all-rounder has sprung up everywhere — the ongoing VB series has three of the finest.

Sri Lanka's Kumar Sangakkara is a batsman of rare beauty and the highest pedigree. The left-hander bats at No. 3 when not tending to Murali. Mark Boucher, already a veteran at 29, capped a magnificent day for his breed last Sunday with 76 at No. 4 after Gilchrist had blistered to 88.

Brendon McCullum of New Zealand has currently the softest gloves in world cricket and the batting audacity to draw a bean-ball from Brett Lee (Dhoni had one from Akhtar. What is it with keepers?). Tatenda Taibu, a man of uncommon courage in times of strife, is the only Zimbabwean batsman to consistently scrape the world standard.

South Africa's AB de Villiers offers a glimpse of the extreme end of the spectrum: a gifted batsman who can keep wicket. Already the instant version has seen a tendency to do away with the gloveman if a replacement of adequate — not special — ability, but a better bat, can be found. "To a good wicketkeeper much may be forgiven," wrote P. G. Wodehouse of a simpler time — a time of specialists, when the man with the big gloves came out to bat for a lark. That time has long passed; Gilchrist has ushered in the era of the keeper-batsman (dare I say the batsman-wicketkeeper). Their time is now.