“What a different game it is, Murt, to the one we used to play!” So commented my friend, a former first-class cricketer and team-mate of mine at Hampshire back in the days of long hair, Zapata moustaches, kipper ties and flared trousers. The occasion was the 4th Test between England and India at Southampton and we were watching, with some amusement, the antics of the Indian wicket-keeper, Rishabh Pant. In fact, the subject of wicket-keepers had been on everybody’s lips for a few days. Bairstow had broken a finger but never mind; there was a ready made replacement in Buttler, England’s one-day ‘keeper, who had been posted hitherto in an unfamiliar position at second slip in previous Tests – and dropped a few, as my friend pointed out. Bairstow, it was noted, was sulking somewhere in the outfield.
The situation of the two players vying for one position in the team reminded me of the unholy dilemma facing the England football manager, Ron Greenwood, in the early 1980s. He had two world-class goalkeepers at his disposal, Peter Shilton and Ray Clemence, and he just couldn’t make up his mind who was better. So he decided to alternate them match-by-match. Some thought this was an admirable solution, canny in its man-management. Personally, I thought it was insane. A manager’s job is to be decisive in his selection. Pandering to his players’ finer sensibilities never got a leader anywhere. The debate as to who is the better ‘keeper – Bairstow or Buttler – is an interesting one but does not concern me here. The point is that Joe Root, the captain, or Trevor Bayliss, the coach, or Ed Smith, the selector, or whoever it is who picks the side, should make his decision and stick with it. Picking one for red ball cricket and the other for white ball cricket (how I hate those terms!) is passing the buck. Imagine Alan Knott handing over the gloves to Bob Taylor for a few matches. It was only when Knott joined World Series Cricket that Taylor (almost but not quite the Kent man’s equal as a gloveman) belatedly got his chance in Test cricket. And I don’t hold to the subscribed theory that players should concentrate on one form of the game to the exclusion of the other. Especially wicket-keepers.
However, both my friend and I recognise that the game has changed since our day and in many ways for the better. The advances in equipment, coaching, fitness, strength, technique and mindset are obvious and well documented. But the standard of wicket-keeping, it is my contention, has declined. I was delighted to have in my companion, a former wicket-keeper himself, a sympathetic ally. We watched Pant put in yet another acrobatic and futile dive as the ball sailed to the boundary for yet more byes. “Pant is pants!” my friend announced to the great amusement of those sitting round about. He then proceeded to give a (verbal) masterclass to engrossed listeners in the art of keeping wicket, using all the while as his model, Pant, of how not to do it. “Look, he’s pushing off on the wrong foot….. You either run forward to take the throw on the full or take a step or two back to take it on the bounce…..See, he’s tried to take it on the half-volley and fumbled it….Untidy!..... You don’t take one step and then dive, otherwise you’re buggered if it keeps on swinging, as it has just there….oops another four byes…..Take lots of quick, little steps and then dive, but only as a last resort….Look, he’s dived again….Nul points for artistic merit…..that’s more of a belly flop than a dive. I agree it’s not easy keeping to a leftie. The angles are different. You have to stand wider and if it does down the leg side, you have more ground to cover. But to counter that, you can anticipate a bit. You can see as soon as it starts to waver off line so you set off earlier.” And so on. It was admirably informative commentary to accompany the hilarity generated by poor Pant’s travails behind the stumps, highlighted by one star jump of a dive, which dislodged his cap to reveal a nasty Mohican. I wondered aloud whether Indian keepers (from North America, that is, not the sub-continent) wore moccasin rather than leather gloves.
Poor Pant. He had a nightmare day. In fairness to him, it should be pointed out that it was a difficult day to keep wicket, when the ball was swinging prodigiously – and kept on swinging after it had passed the bat. However, my friend and I could have named half-a-dozen ‘keepers back in the day, none of them Test players, who would have done a better job than Pant. “The point is,” my friend finally announced, “that you shouldn’t notice the wicket-keeper. He should be unobtrusive.” Bit like a referee, I thought. You only notice him when he’s doing a bad job.
I accept that the emphasis has changed how wicket-keepers are regarded in a team context. They are more batsmen/wicket-keepers than wicket-keeper/batsmen, if you see what I mean. That is, the main string to their bow is willow rather than leather. When did the change come about? Was it Adam Gilchrist? Ah, but he was a very fine keeper as well as one of the most destructive batsmen in world cricket. Don’t forget, he kept to Shane Warne and took 37 Test stumpings. He was no mere ‘stopper’. It would be an interesting study – a statistical exercise beyond me – to calculate whether over the years, teams have been better served by wicket-keepers who can bat a bit or batsmen who can keep wicket…sort of. In our day, the trend was for the former; these days it is the latter. Answers on a postcard please. But what is undeniable is that the art of keeping wicket has eroded. Godfrey Evans would have turned in his grave and spilt his drink in indignation of what was on display at Southampton that day.