What ails today’s ’keepers?

Knowing India’s great love for cricket, the main topic of discussions in clubs, bazaars and villages is bound to be, ‘Can we beat the Aussies?’ Obviously, India’s great effort in England will have given their supporters great hope, but the answer to the above question is fairly simple — yes, India can beat the Aussies, provided their bowlers can take 20 wickets in a match.

While the pundits frequently talk of batting deeds, it is inevitably the bowlers who win matches. It doesn’t matter whether the batsmen score thousands of runs in a Test, but the bowlers have to dismiss the opposition twice in order to win the match.

History has shown that the Australian batsmen have a weakness against swing bowling. India came close to defeating Australia (in Australia) a few years ago when medium-pacer Ajit Agarkar bowled beautifully. And Australia lost the Ashes series in 2005 against some fine swing bowling by the Englishmen. India’s Test series win against England recently was achieved mainly through wonderful swing bowling.

Some years ago John Wright, then the coach of India, asked me what method he has to adopt to beat Australia on their tour down under. I told him to pick the best swing bowlers he could find, and it didn’t matter if they weren’t lightning quick.

Readers of this column wouldn’t have been surprised by this, for I have always been preaching about swing bowling and lamenting its decline.

Batsmen haven’t played against top swing bowling for years, and even the best, including Ricky Ponting, don’t look comfortable playing swing.

To back India’s fine swing bowlers, correct fields have to be set and the fielders must know how to catch. India’s fielding and wicket-keeping in England was below par.

Modern day wicketkeepers stand too deep and cover little distance on the off and leg. All of them dive or rather sprawl instead of getting into position swiftly with quick feet and body movement. Wicketkeepers standing too far back also make it difficult to set up the slip cordon properly.

Much of the wicket-keeping problems today stem from the ’keepers’ desire to take the ball on the drop below their knees. Great wicketkeepers of the past always took the ball about waist high on the rise.

There is no doubt in my mind that there is not a wicketkeeper in Test cricket today who can be termed truly great, and the question remains, will Ian Healy be the last of the great wicketkeepers?

Unfortunately, this is because of the modern trend of having a batsman-wicketkeeper rather than a genuine gloveman. In theory, it sounds okay. If you have someone like Adam Gilchrist, who averages 48.66 in Tests, it may be okay — just may be. The reality, however, is that a ’keeper selected mainly for his batting skills rather than ’keeping expertise will drop a lot of catches — and catches win matches.

The Australian spinners of the Lillee-Marsh era claim that they would have got many more wickets than they actually did if their wicketkeeper, who was brilliant against the fast bowlers, had performed better while ’keeping to them. England in particular have suffered due to wicketkeepers who were chosen because the selectors thought they could score more runs than their counterparts who might claim more dismissals, but were less proficient as batsmen.

Matt Prior had a disastrous season behind the stumps and his predecessor Geraint Jones was equally disappointing — neither of them scored enough runs to make up for the chances they missed behind.

India’s Mahendra Singh Dhoni had a good series with the bat and is probably good enough to hold his place in the team with his batting alone. But he has been disappointing behind the stumps, and I would be surprised if someone tells me that there are no better wicketkeepers in India. Where are the Kirmanis of Indian cricket? Where are the Alan Knotts and the Wally Grouts? Cricket is poorer for their absence.

There is still time before India’s tour to Australia, and if they are not to flounder in the toughest environment of world cricket, the Indian players should spend every second possible on improving their fielding.

What worries me the most about India is their lack of sharpness, urgency and technique on the field. Fielding is, in many ways, the most demanding of all the departments in cricket. A single mistake on the field can alter the result of a match.

The correct technique and the ability to concentrate are vital components of fielding.

Focussing is all about reducing peak concentration to minimum time. It is impossible to concentrate for the entire day’s play. It is, however, possible to concentrate for 30 minutes, which is about all that is required. This is achieved by adopting a method whereby you only switch on your concentration when the bowler is in his final preparation for sending down the ball.

I call this the ‘now’ method. For every ball bowled I would say ‘now’, to ensure that I was going to be at the peak of my concentration, whether I was batting or fielding. This method allowed me to remain focussed and sharp the whole day, for once the ball was bowled and given the treatment it required, I switched back to the ‘relaxed’ mode.

To me most of the Indian close-in fielders today look like cats on a hot tin roof. They seem as if they don’t want the ball to come to them. Good fielders wish that every ball comes to them, whether in the air or on the ground. There is nothing more satisfying in cricket than taking a wonderful catch or completing a spectacular run out, for you know either of them can change the whole complexion of a match.