The former India wicketkeeper, Farokh Engineer, last year bemoaned the nation’s dearth of specialist stumpers. “There must surely be [some] hiding somewhere,” he said with wistfulness for an age when men were men and some of them were born to wear gloves for a living. An age, like those of Reason, Enlightenment and Stone, that is extremely unlikely to enjoy a renaissance.
Engineer’s lament was curious. He was never the most reliable of stumpers and his buccaneering bat contributed much more to Lancashire’s one-day triumphs of the early 1970s. The fact is that, with few exceptions,
wicketkeepers are now made, not born.
This weekend will provide the perfect illustration when the third Test between India and Sri Lanka begins in Ahmedabad. The respective stumpers will be Mahendra Singh (“MS”) Dhoni and Kumar Sangakkara, formidable batsmen first, backstops second. “The issue is not about the wicketkeepers,” reasoned the then-India captain Sourav Ganguly earlier this year, “but about the keepers who can deliver as
Sangakkara bats at number three – few regular keepers have ever been entrusted with such a pivotal position – and averages 47, more than any active England batsman bar Andrew Strauss. In this week’s second Test, Dhoni’s second such outing, his run-a-ball 51 helped set up a match-winning declaration. While not necessarily confirming that he can achieve the transition from one-day destroyer to five-day dependable, it underlined a growing trend. A trend that threatens to quell all further debate about the skills required to keep wicket in Test cricket.
Indeed, a glance at the eight leading national XIs in either form of the game (though the personnel are increasingly the same) reveals not a single keeper who owes his place primarily to glovemanship. And this month, the stumpers have been even more prominent than usual.
In Hobart two weeks ago, Denesh Ramdin, 20, scored 71 for West Indies against Australia in his third Test. In the three-match series, he even outscored opposition counterpart Adam Gilchrist. In Christchurch last Saturday, New Zealand’s record-breaking chase against Australia was sealed by Brendon McCullum’s audacious 25-ball 50. Monday in Lahore brought a match-winning century against England by Pakistan’s Kamran Akmal, who capped that with another ton in Karachi on Thursday.
Further back, South Africa’s Mark Boucher helped Pat Symcox set the Test record ninth-wicket stand of 195 in 1998. His four centuries in 85 Tests compares far from unfavourably with the vastly more lauded Alan Knott’s five in 95. And Australia still have the vast good fortune to be served by Gilchrist, whose 27 international centuries and Test average of 51 have hoisted the bar to inconceivable heights.
With his henna-coated, shoulder-length mullet, Dhoni, 24, is the most exciting batsmen to emerge from India since the similarly audacious Virender Sehwag. Unlike most of his wicketkeeping contemporaries, that innate dash is augmented by staying power. Last spring, in just his fifth one-day international, he pounded Pakistan for 148. Then, against Sri Lanka in Jaipur last month, he carved and drove his way to an unconquered 183, usurping Gilchrist’s one-day international record for a keeper. “An incomparable innings,” said Tom Moody, Sri Lanka’s coach.
How far we have come. The embodiment of the mono-faceted wicketkeeper was Bert Oldfield, prince of stumpers between the world wars. Grateful to be alive after being buried for several hours during a bombardment in 1918, Oldfield reached 50 for Australia just four times in 54 Tests and never passed 65. His 52 Test stumpings, though, have still to be matched. In 214 Tests between them, Ian Healy and Alan Knott, the foremost wicketkeepers of the past 40 years, managed 48.
During the “Bodyline” series of 1932-33, however, Oldfield found himself pitted against the future. Kent’s Les Ames was a belligerent batsman who had been advised, at 17, to take up keeping as a second string, which he did to record-breaking effect. In Tests, he averaged more than 40, setting a benchmark that would be unchallenged until Gilchrist smashed the mould.
It was in England during the first half of the 1960s that the debate between purists and pragmatists scaled new peaks of intensity, even snobbery. Godfrey Evans of Kent, cheerleader and showmanlike wicketkeeper in a then-record 91 Tests, had had his moments of obduracy and brilliance with the bat but the runs being harvested by South Africa’s John Waite and the West Indies’ Gerry Alexander were hard to ignore. Thus it was that Jim Parks, who made his debut as a batsman, was repeatedly preferred to the likes of Keith Andrew and John Murray.
Then, at the dawn of the 1980s, came that elegant Jamaican, Jeffrey Dujon. Capped initially, like Parks, as a batsman, he proved his worth to that irresistible West Indies team behind the stumps as well as in front, just as Alec Stewart would for England.
One development in particular aided their cause. Until Shane Warne made spin sexy again, accomplished slow bowlers, who provide the sternest test of a wicketkeeper’s acumen, were scarce. Indeed, the West Indies seldom bothered selecting them. Being the complete article was no longer quite so crucial.
The transition was completed by the mounting volume of one-day cricket, a form where passengers with the bat are even less welcome than they are in the longer game. Increasingly, wicketkeepers would be picked for 50-over games because they could score quick runs, then promoted to the Test XI.
As a keeper, Dhoni accepts that his footwork needs improvement. Fortunately, like England’s Geraint Jones and Matt Prior, the Sussex stumper who has been playing as a specialist batsman against Pakistan, fitness and agility can atone for shortcomings in stealth, mental acuity and hand-eye co-ordination – albeit only up to a point.
In last summer’s Ashes series, Jones dropped a number of clangers, whereupon Gilchrist would frequently temper the younger man’s embarrassment with an even crasser error. Their guilt, moreover, was exacerbated by endless action replays, a televisual aid that exposes technical flaws in a manner that might have made even Oldfield shudder. Yet as Gilchrist, Sangakkara and now Dhoni have proved, the compensations are ample.
In July, another gust of reality blew in when the English county of Durham parted company with Andrew Pratt. Long deemed the most gifted gloveman on the county circuit but too meek a batsman, Pratt, having hit the salutary age of 30, has decided to cut his losses and become a plumber. Those not bemoaning a trade in irreversible decline saluted him on a wise move.