Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Keeping it real

A total of 241 men have taken the gloves in Test Match cricket and 203 in One Day International cricket. Historically it has always proved very difficult to combine both jobs of batting well and keeping wicket. However, a number of players have bucked the trend in these forms of the game and here we pay tribute to them.

The rapid onset of the one-day game in the recent years has persuaded international teams that they need to consider their wicket-keeper more as a front-line batsman, with the admission that they wouldn’t necessarily take the chances that the pure stumpers of old may have done. Long gone are the days of the wicket-keeper hidden away down the batting order in case of emergencies.

One of England’s finest glovemen was Bert Strudwick who played 28 Tests between 1910 and 1926 but ended with a Test batting average of 7.93 and a highest batting rating of just 104. George Duckworth replaced him in the team and held his place for most of the next decade but he ended with an average of 14.62 and a highest rating of 127. Other examples of the ‘all-field, little-bat’ keeper include Ken James (highest rating 41 in 11 Tests), Gil Langley (highest rating 223 in 26 Tests), and Narendra Tamhane (highest rating 251 in 21 Tests).

To illustrate this paradigm change, in the 1980s Test wicket-keepers averaged 23.61 with the bat. In the 1990s it was 27.29 and in the 2000s it had risen to 30.76.

Of course, some have flourished despite keeping wicket for the vast majority of their careers. Andy Flower managed to combine his role as key batsman and wicket-keeper and became the first keeper to reach the number one spot in the Reliance Mobile ICC Player Rankings for Test batsmen in 2001. He was followed the following year by Adam Gilchrist, who hit 17 Test centuries and single-handedly revolutionised the way wicket-keepers are viewed in the longer format of the game.

Despite the current trend to choose fast-scoring wicket-keepers, especially in the shorter format of the game, only two have ever reached top spot in ODI cricket. Unsurprisingly, the first was Gilchrist who first topped the pile in February 2004 and spent a total of 396 days as the number one. The next to achieve the feat was the current incumbent – MS Dhoni. An innings of 96 against England at Jamshedpur in April 2006 took him to number one – a mere 16 months after his international debut for India. He has currently spent a total of 428 days on top of the world.

Even Flower occasionally hung up his gloves as Wayne James and Tatenda Taibu took the gloves in eight of his 63 Tests. However, Zimbabwe was possibly better served with their premier batsman sharing both duties as he averaged just 35.45 in those eight Tests as opposed to 53.70 when he combined both roles. This flies in the face of the other two recent players to play a significant number of matches as both batsmen and keeper. Kumar Sangakkara averages 40.48 with the gloves on and 72.79 without and Alec Stewart 34.92 with and 46.70 without. Back in 1948, Sir Clyde Walcott started his career behind the stumps and played his first fifteen matches in that position, but with a Test batting average of 40.36 he gave up the gloves and averaged 64.66 in his remaining 29 Tests.

So – which wicket-keeper has achieved the highest rating in terms of points in the Reliance Mobile ICC Player Rankings? Well – there are several answers to that question depending on how you define the word “wicket-keeper”

If we look at players who were picked as wicket-keeper for every match they played, the answers are:

Adam Gilchrist (874)
Alan Knott (650)
Brad Haddin (623)

MS Dhoni (837)
Mark Boucher (622)
Rod Marsh (559)

How about those players – like Sangakkara, Flower and Stewart – who were picked as wicket-keeper for their side in at least half their total matches?

Kumar Sangakkara (938)
Andy Flower (895)
Adam Gilchrist (874)

MS Dhoni (837)
Adam Gilchrist (824)
Kumar Sangakkara (755)

Before anyone says anything – early in his career, Gilchrist played five matches purely as a batsman while Ian Healy kept wicket.

Lastly, we should reserve a special place for the Honourable Alfred Lyttelton. He was picked as England’s wicket-keeper in all four of his Test Matches in the 1880s, but ironically is best remembered for an inspired bowling spell. In his final match, at The Oval in 1884, he was the tenth bowler tried in a massive Australian first innings. However, he proceeded to take four wickets for just 19 runs in 12 overs as Australia was bowled out for 551. That effort gave him a bowling Rating of 158 – the highest for anyone who has played exclusively as a Test wicket-keeper.